WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The death of Queen Elizabeth II last week has reignited debate in New Zealand over whether she should continue to recognize the British monarch as her symbolic head of state or take the final step towards independence by becoming a republic.
But there remains a significant complicating factor.
While indigenous peoples from many of the 14 nations outside Britain who recognize the monarchy want to abandon it because they see it as a symbol of colonial repression, opinions are more mixed among New Zealanders indigenous. Some Maori leaders prefer to stay with the monarchy, at least for now.
That’s because New Zealand’s founding document, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, was signed between Maori chiefs and the British crown. The treaty guaranteed Maori sovereignty over their traditional lands and fisheries, and some Maori fear these promises will be threatened by the removal of New Zealand’s monarchy.
For the past 33 years, the New Zealand government has negotiated with Maori tribes and compensated them for historic treaty breaches through monetary and land settlements. But the process remains incomplete, as some tribes have not yet reached the colonies.
Willie Jackson, the government’s minister for Maori development, said the appropriate time for a discussion of the creation of a republic would come after Elizabeth’s period of mourning.
“When we have this conversation, I think the reality for a lot of Maori is that the treaty position is paramount,” Jackson said. “There have been a lot of fears that the treaty will disappear. So obviously some people will be looking to root for that.”
Peeni Henare, New Zealand Defense Minister and another influential Maori voice in government, said that from his perspective there should be “no idea of becoming a republic” until the process of settling the treaty is not finished.
Constitutional experts argue that the New Zealand government’s obligations to compensate Maori under the treaty would not need to change if it became a republic, and a change would be a fairly simple legal maneuver to pull off. This did not reassure all Maori.
Some, however, argue for New Zealand to immediately become a republic. The small Maori party, which holds two seats in parliament, surprised some observers in February by pushing for a republic as part of wider changes that include the creation of a separate Maori parliament.
“The only way this nation can function is when Maori assert their rights to self-management, self-determination and self-governance over all our areas,” the party’s co-leader said at the time. Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, adding: “This doesn’t mean the Crown is off the hook. If a couple divorces, you don’t lose responsibility for your child.
Lewis Holden, campaign chairman of lobby group New Zealand Republic, said the treaty remained key to the republican debate in New Zealand. He said his group’s position was the same as that of academics – that nothing would change to the constitutional treaty powers if New Zealand became a republic.
On Indigenous rights, Lewis added, “There’s a big question, I think, about this symbolism of staying connected to the monarchy.”
He said New Zealand was likely to lag behind the Caribbean countries and Australia in their drive to become a republic, but he hopes there could be a national referendum on the issue within five to ten coming years.
“Clearly there was a lot of support for the monarchy just because of the good feeling people had for the Queen,” Holden said.
He said the sense of nostalgia people had for Elizabeth and her connection to historical events like the Second World War had now subsided – or would after a peak during Elizabeth’s mourning period – and that support in New Zealand’s monarchy would inevitably decline under the reign of King Charles III.
But over the years, New Zealand’s political leaders have shown little enthusiasm for engaging in the republican debate, no doubt in part because of the thorny indigenous issues it raises.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said her government has no plans to pursue the issue after the Queen’s death.
She said she believed New Zealand would eventually become a republic, and that would probably happen in her lifetime, but there were more pressing issues for her government to address.
Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon said much the same thing.
“I see no need for constitutional change at this time. I think it could happen at some point, but it could even take decades,” he said.