New Zealand republic debate complicated by Maori treaty

Constitutional experts argue that the obligations of New Zealand’s government to compensate Maori under the treaty wouldn’t need to change if it became a republic, and a switch would be a fairly simple legal manoeuvre to pull off. That hasn’t reassured all Maori.

Some, however, are advocating for New Zealand to become a republic immediately. The small Maori Party, which holds two seats in the Parliament, surprised some observers in February by advocating for a republic as part of broader changes that include setting up a separate Maori parliament.

Britain’s Camilla, Queen Consort (then Duchess of Cornwall) receives a hongi from a maori elder as she and Prince Charles visit the Wesley Community Centre in Auckland, New Zealand in November 2019. Credit:AAP

“The only way this nation can work is when Maori assert their rights to self-management, self-determination and self-governance over all our domains,” said party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer at the time, adding: “This won’t mean the crown is off the hook. If a couple gets divorced, you don’t lose responsibility for your child.”

Lewis Holden, the campaign chair of lobby group New Zealand Republic, said the treaty remains key to the republic debate in New Zealand. He said his group’s position is the same as that of academics – that nothing changes about the treaty’s constitutional powers if New Zealand becomes a republic.

When it comes to Indigenous rights, Lewis added, “There is a big question, I think, about that symbolism of staying connected to the monarchy.”

He said that New Zealand likely lags behind Caribbean nations and Australia in the push to become a republic, but he hopes there might be a national referendum on the issue within the next five to 10 years.

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“Very clearly there was a lot of support for the monarchy simply because of the good feeling that people had towards the queen,” Holden said.

He said the feeling of nostalgia people had for Elizabeth and her connection to historic events like World War II was now gone – or would be after a spike during the mourning period for Elizabeth – and that support in New Zealand for the monarchy would inevitably wane under the reign of King Charles III.

But over the years, New Zealand’s political leaders have shown little enthusiasm for engaging in the republic debate, no doubt in part because of the thorny Indigenous issues it raises.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her government doesn’t plan to pursue the issue following the queen’s death.

She said she thought New Zealand will eventually become a republic, and it would probably happen within her lifetime, but that there were more pressing issues for her government to address.

Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon said much the same.

“I don’t see any need for constitutional change right now. I think that it might happen at some point, but that could even be decades away,” he said.

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