It’s an issue that pops up from time to time, usually in the pubs among members of the ‘old guard’. But recently the debate for New Zealand becoming a republic has been heating up. The republicanism movement in New Zealand is being fuelled by the royal family’s lack of political relevance. But will that mean a change is on the cards anytime soon? James Greenland looks into the history of The Crown’s influence in New Zealand, how it has shaped the country, and if it’s time to become a republic.
After 172 years, the Queen of England remains New Zealand’s highest authority, regardless of the monarchy’s dwindling relevance to political life in this country. Her political impotence has led to calls for reformation from certain factions, notably the Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s time for an elected head of state, they say – time for a Kiwi to wear the crown of our country. But, however small their influence over law making may be, the royals continue to feature large in our national media.
Will and Kate were married after that ‘fairytale’ engagement the whole world watched, and the noble Prince visited Christchurch in March last year, too. Prince Charlie turned heads playing DJ and weatherman for the BBC recently – a disarmingly desperate bid for relevance during his employ as king-in-waiting. His mum, our Queen, Lizzy, got older, turning 86 in April, and is celebrating 65 years on the throne. Surely you didn’t miss her cameo at the London Olympics – parachuting from a plane with agent 007. Priceless! And, as a tribute to dear Betty, John Key put her husband, Philip, on New Zealand’s highest honours list and has invited Chuck to a lunch in New Zealand, on us – the taxpayer, too.
Like, love or loathe them, the royals are first-name-basis familiar faces in most New Zealand homes and their celebrity is as A-list as anyone’s. Of course, the British monarchy is woven into the fabric of our society, at the apex of which sits Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. But, it is rarely the monarchy’s role in our social structure that makes the national news, perpetuating the royals’ relevance. Discussions about our constitutional framework are far less common than paparazzi pics of Pipa in a new frock – and she’s not even really one of them. It is primarily with fame, rather than power, that the royals retain their relevance to New Zealand society.
Lack of political relevance is one of the reasons republicanism is growing in this country. As the historical, hierarchical power structures of monarchy erode under the modern pressures of democracy, the royals’ perceived right to rule is weakening. For the Republican Movement of Aoteroa New Zealand – and their more than 4,000 Facebook followers – the problem with the monarchy is closely related to our independence and identity as a nation, as they express on their website, www.republic.org.nz: “The Republican Movement wants a New Zealand republic to replace the monarchy in New Zealand with a democratically elected New Zealander as our head of state, to truly represent our unique culture and our place in the world as an independent nation.” Republicans know the modern British monarchy has little-to-no actual political power within the Commonwealth of Nations over which they formally reign. Let’s take a moment to consider our country’s history, paying close attention to our constitutional development. The story can be told quickly, and has a common theme.
AS WE ALL OUGHT TO KNOW, MAORI WERE here for some time before England arrived, living off the land with their own cultural sense of sovereignty and ownership. But, jumping on ahead, by 1840 Britain had signed the Treaty of Waitangi with support from a majority of Maori, and so the Crown claimed New Zealand as another South Pacific jewel. After a little while, 1852, Kiwis set up a Parliament, doing things pretty much the way Britain did.
Soon though, nuances of life on the long white cloud called for a form of government that suited us specifically, and so the first four Maori seats were introduced to the Parliament in 1867. By 1893 the work of some good New Zealanders was finally recognised as women proved, and won their right to vote. Kiwis pioneered this political evolution, which took off around the Western world, signaling the willingness of our people to independently reform politics when necessary. By 1907 New Zealand ceased being a colony, becoming a dominion. The Evening Post reported on the 26 of September that New Zealand “went ‘up one’ in the ‘school of British nations’. Abroad … there is a notion that New Zealand is … merely the little tail of the great dog; but the Prime Minister is determined that the tail is not to be overlooked, nor to be despised in any way.” We may have moved up one, but Aotearoa was still a small player.
Until 1947 Britain retained the right to make laws for New Zealand, which was only abrogated by acceptance of the Statute of Westminster – legislation that had existed, offering us independence, for 16 years. New Zealand was, like a nervous adolescent, reluctant to move out of home into the real world. But move we did, slowly and consciously, away from the paternal guidance of our British forebears. By 2004 we had abolished the right to appeal to the Privy Council in London, and established our own Supreme Court in our own capital city. That was the last look back. It’s now 2012 and what’s left of royal power in New Zealand is only ceremonial.
New Zealand is a constitutional monarchy, a member of the British Commonwealth as a result of history. But modern MMP democracy vests real political power with an elected Prime Minister and political party, with which they execute the functions of State. The common theme of New Zealand’s history is of liberalisation and moves toward political independence. We were slow to accept our own identity, and it took some time to fully shake the vestiges of a colonial past.
But ultimately our history is a story of the people taking power. Current parliamentary process for the passing of laws requires the Governor-General to assent, on behalf of the Queen, to any legislation the Prime Minister presents him or her with. The Queen’s power to reject laws or dispel Parliament legally exists within our unwritten constitution, but in modern practice that power is merely formal – the monarch’s representatives are required to acquiesce our independence, to assent our laws. Political ties with the monarchy remain, but they are customary and historical by nature, and are not integral to New Zealand’s constitutional identity should we chose to cut them.
The chairman of the Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand, Lewis Holden, is a young, regular, Kiwi bloke working in the computer software industry.
He says he became interested in the republican movement at university in Wellington after realising how little sense it made to maintain past connections with Britain when New Zealand’s real goal ought to be moving forward as an independent nation.
These days he runs the organisation, attending functions to represent republicanism, writing blogs, and regularly lobbying Parliament in an effort to inspire reform.
He describes his aspirations for New Zealand with an earthquake metaphor: “When studying buildings to assess their vulnerability in an earthquake we make note of weak points before the ground starts shaking. We want to fix things now, before they fall down broken.” The same is true of our political constitution, he says. Why wait until something breaks?
Mike Wilkinson, the treasurer of the movement, agrees that we need to be proactive in reforming the constitution, and not wait around for a problem to arise before changing things.
“It’s about democracy, independence and national identity,” he says. “I think New Zealand is awesome, and I want to keep it that way. That’s why we need to keep assessing what it is that makes us awesome and protect that.”
For these two men, New Zealand’s awesomeness stems from the Kiwi spirit of independence, that resilient No 8-wire approach of our people to the practical problems of life. Both hope to see political reform in this country achieved via the instrument of referendum, which would ask Kiwis to consider abolishing legal links with the monarchy and establishing an independent office for the New Zealand head of state. They say this will bolster democracy, clarify national identify, and empower our independent autonomy. They want forward-thinking change.
MONARCHY NEW ZEALAND REPRESENTS THE other side of the story. They are the organisation dedicated to celebrating and further entrenching the monarchy within the public psyche. They want things to stay the same.
Their website, www.monarchy.org.nz, lists many reasons why Lewis Holden and Mike Wilkinson and the republicans are wrong, though they evidently don’t believe in evidence. Constitutional monarchies are the most stable forms of government, they say. Hereditary succession is the fairest form of power transfer, they say. The Queen is entirely a-political they say, dedicated purely to her position of ceremonial leadership.
Whatever validity these and other arguments may have if proven, Monarchy New Zealand is not willing to engage in debate with republicans.
‘This is their chairperson Sean Palmer’s response to questions about republicanism in New Zealand: “To engage in a debate with those who would throw away [constitutional monarchy] implies that the two ideas have equal merit.”
He was given the chance to discuss his position but chose to deflect the opportunity with a bold, but hollow email: “Empirical evidence around the world over the past several decades has demonstrated clearly that constitutional monarchy is a very important part of a successful democracy. To suggest that it isn’t, could have very dangerous constitutional ramifications which we would not want to inadvertently encourage.”
Though the monarchists fear New Zealand is not ready, too immature, for republican independence, childishly they will not entertain discussion of republicanism for fear of the ramifications. Perhaps they are right to fear the inevitable tide of change, for the only certainty in politics is that what is now will not remain.
There are two sides to this debate, one calling for change, and the other continuity. Which will prevail, and when?
This year New Zealand is undergoing constitutional review, though republicanism has explicitly been left off the agenda. It seems that the royals’ pageantry and pomp of late has Kiwis fond of, and reluctant to talk of cession from, the British.
Lewis Holden’s recent blogging suggests that republicans might be preparing to bide their time, relaxing on lobbying for a while, waiting for the wave of populist royal support to wash away.
My theory is this: New Zealand will become an independent republic, severing all but our historical ties with the Crown, and elect a national as head of state. But it will not happen soon. Our country has a history of independent evolution, but such tends to be pragmatic not proactive. Despite the lobbying of groups like Republic New Zealand, there is a heavy inertia accompanying political change in New Zealand which is usually slow to manifest.
Truth is, things work pretty well here in God’s Own, and no one really feels oppressed by regal tyranny. But as time marches on, and the past stretches long behind us, Kiwis will eventually look forward to a new political arrangement which recognises and represents our independence within the world of nations. This will not happen until the currently comfortable status quo shifts to the point where opinion is so unbalanced against the reigning monarch that a referendum might make change. Queen Bitts won’t get the boot from Kiwis, but less-loved Chucky might. We like Wills, and Kate is great, but by the time they play King and Queen the baby boomers will be passing power to generation You and Me, and we are much more likely to try change for change’s sake. Time will tell.