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Op-ed: Public view to be sought in review of oaths

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Justice
Opinion piece

Public view to be sought in review of oaths

Over the next month, New Zealanders will have the chance to say whether or not they think the country’s oaths and affirmations should be updated.

The oaths to be reviewed include those taken by new citizens, public office holders and some employees in the state sector. Oaths taken by professional groups and by witnesses in court are not being reviewed.

There has not been a comprehensive review of oaths and affirmations for nearly 50 years, so this review is long overdue. It is also timely to consider whether our oaths accurately reflect the values that are important to New Zealanders in the 21st century.

New citizens currently swear allegiance to the Queen, her heirs and successors, but not to New Zealand itself, or its people. Ministers of the Crown also swear allegiance to the Queen but not to the nation, whose laws they make.

The review will invite comment on whether these oaths express the current values and beliefs of New Zealanders, or reflect a sense of independent nationhood.

Other oaths use old-fashioned and unduly complex language. The Police oath, for example, is over 90 words long and talks of serving “our Sovereign Lady the Queen in the Police, without favour or affection, malice or ill-will”, to “see and cause Her Majesty’s peace to be kept and preserved”.

Defence force personnel swear to obey “all orders of Her Majesty, her heirs and successors, and of the officers set over me”.

Barristers appointed Queen’s Counsel make a lengthy declaration to “duly and truly minister the Queen’s matters and sue the Queen’s process after the course of the Law and after my cunning”.

These oaths, and others, could be easily re-worded to more clearly state the duties to be undertaken, and the reality that the office-holder is a servant of the people of New Zealand.

New Zealand’s oaths and affirmations are based on those of the United Kingdom, and so are similar to those of other Commonwealth countries, many of whom have undertaken their own reviews in recent years.

Common themes among changes have been a reduction or removal of the emphasis placed on the Crown, and the highlighting of national values.

In 1993, Australia replaced its oath of allegiance for new citizens, who now “pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.”

Australian Cabinet Ministers now swear to “well and truly serve the Commonwealth of Australia”.

In 2002, the UK added to its citizenship oath a pledge to “give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen”.

Jamaica has also changed its oath for legislators, the judiciary and government officials from an oath to the Queen to an oath to Jamaica, the constitution and the people of Jamaica.

Canada has a Bill before the House proposing a change to its citizenship oath, currently much the same as ours. The new oath pledges loyalty to Canada first, and then to the Queen, and then uses much the same language as the new British pledge.

No changes will be made to New Zealand oaths and affirmations until public submissions have been considered.

All Phil Goff’s media releases and speeches are posted at www.beehive.govt.nz

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