Thursday, September 15, 2022

Why we should remain a constitutional monarchy, even with Charles on the throne

Once the Queen is buried, there will be a renewed push to make New Zealand a republic with a president as head of state. Nothing is surer.

We may not even have to wait until after the funeral. Within hours of the Queen's death the leader of the New Zealand republican movement, Lewis Holden, served notice that he’d be pushing the start button on an opportunistic campaign timed to take advantage of Charles’ accession to the throne.

While going through the motions of sending condolences and aroha to the royal family and promising to refrain from public comment during the mourning period, Holden simultaneously announced a special online Q and A session for his followers last Tuesday evening. “Rest assured,” he told them in an email, “that following the state funeral … our campaign begins again in earnest.” Holden’s impatience was almost palpable.

The republican movement has never been as strong here as in Australia (blame that country’s large population of Irish descent), and even there the appetite for change isn’t huge. In a 1999 referendum, 55 per cent of Australians voted in favour of retaining the monarchy. Prime minister Anthony Albanese, an avowed republican, has said another referendum is not a priority during his government’s first term.

Jacinda Ardern is also a republican but appears to accept that it’s not a pressing issue with voters. Labour will probably have taken electoral soundings and decided it’s more trouble than it’s worth, for the time being at least. (It will also have taken note of the damage done to John Key and National by the divisive flag debate in 2015 and 2016.) As Bryce Edwards has pointed out, one very large complicating factor is where the Treaty would sit in any new constitutional arrangements.

Nonetheless, we can expect New Zealand republicans to seize the moment. The Queen was an enormously popular monarch; one who was respected as well as loved. The same cannot be said for her son and successor, who strikes many people (this writer included) as stiff, pompous, aloof and priggish. (For a splendidly acerbic demolition job on him, read this piece by Australian royalty-watcher Daniela Elser.)

What better time, then. to promote a debate about the constitution? Republicans would have taken heart from the last opinion poll on the monarchy, taken in February this year on the occasion of the Queen’s 70th jubilee. Asked whether New Zealand should become a republic once the Queen died, 48 percent of respondents to the Newshub Reid poll said “no”. Thirty-six percent voted “yes” and 15 percent were undecided.

On the face of it, that’s an emphatic thumbs-down. But the poll showed, unsurprisingly, that support for the monarchy was strongest among those over 60 and diminished inversely in proportion to age.

Of those aged 18-30, only 37 percent wanted another British monarch (i.e. Charles) to succeed the Queen as our head of state. In that age group, 59 percent favoured a New Zealand president, and the figure was almost exactly the same (58 percent) for those aged 31-45.

Assuming those age groups hold to that view as they get older, we can expect a gradual shift in favour of a republic. This expectation will sustain the true believers of the small but noisy republican movement.

For now, we should demand a balanced debate, but we’re unlikely to get it.

If you were to take note of most public commentary on the issue, you’d be justified in thinking the weight of public opinion overwhelmingly favours a republic – but that’s only because republicans make up most of the commentariat.

Many of these commentators miss the point, I suspect wilfully. They treat it as an issue of personalities. Their argument, essentially, is that the Queen was popular whereas Charles is not (although the latest opinion polls in Britain show a sudden spike in his favourability rating). Therefore the time has come to sever the constitutional connection with the Crown.

An Auckland University law academic says there was a level of emotional attachment to the Queen, and now that she has died “the conversation will become less emotional”. That may be true, but it assumes that support for the constitutional monarchy rests on emotion and devotion to the Queen. It doesn’t. It’s entirely cool and rational.

In constitutional terms, the Queen’s death changes nothing. It may be true that people loved the Queen and don’t feel the same about Charles, but the constitutional underpinnings are unchanged.

I draw my own arbitrary distinction here between royalists and monarchists. By my definition, royalists are those whose attachment to the monarchy is largely sentimental. They love the glamour and pageantry. These are the people who lined the streets whenever the Queen came to New Zealand and who buy any women’s magazine that has royalty on the cover. Seen in this light, royalty can be viewed as either a fairy tale or a soap opera (Joe Bennett’s description in his column yesterday).

Monarchists, on the other hand, view royalty strictly in constitutional terms. They ask the vital question: do our existing constitutional arrangements serve New Zealand well? Unarguably, the answer is yes. We may have acquired them almost by historical accident and they may be ill-defined and poorly understood, but they have made us one of the world’s most stable democracies.

Paradoxically, they depend on a head of state who appears to do little apart from merely existing. The monarch’s powers are more notional than actual, but they serve as a vital constitutional backstop in case they’re needed. It’s weird, but it works.

Personalities are irrelevant in the constitutional debate as long as the reigning monarch makes no attempt to interfere in domestic politics. In her 70 years on the throne the Queen never did. Charles’ acceptability as King will depend entirely on whether he can maintain his mother’s impeccable record.

The worst thing he can do is misuse his office to promote his pet ideological causes, which would alienate the very people who are otherwise most likely to support a constitutional monarchy. It doesn’t help that some of his beliefs verge on being barmy. But he has pledged not to do that, and we should give him a chance to live up to his promise. Whether he’s personally likeable is neither here nor there.

The crucial point about the monarchy is that it gives us a head of state who is above politics. It provides an element of impartiality, stability and continuity that could never be guaranteed under a president.

Whatever method might be used to elect or appoint a New Zealand president, political factors would intrude.  There are no constitutional mechanisms that can guarantee us a wholly apolitical New Zealand head of state. And unless the post is held for life, which would never be acceptable, there would be the risk of instability and uncertainty whenever it came up for renewal.  

It’s true that the monarch has what are called reserve powers, but we have never seen them exercised in New Zealand. Metaphorically speaking, they are kept in a glass case bearing the words “Break in case of emergency”. They were controversially used to dismiss Gough Whitlam’s government in Australia in 1975, but many historians now take the view that chaotic circumstances justified that action.

In any case, Australian voters were given the chance one month later to say whether or not they approved. A general election was called and Whitlam’s Labour Party was overwhelmingly defeated. Power was handed back to the people and normal service resumed.

There is another vital respect in which the monarchy works. As one authority has put it, the significance of the monarchy is not the power it possesses but the power it denies others. For “others” read “politicians”, who may not always act with the purest of motives. The fact that the head of state is unelected runs counter to democratic principles, but it means the monarchy is immune to political pressures. As I said: weird, but it works.

As for the fact that the monarch is 20,000 km away, that’s to our advantage too. It means our head of state has no stake in what happens here politically.

Of course the phrase “president of New Zealand” has an alluring and emotive ring that republicanism’s advocates exploit to the full. They evoke fuzzy, feel-good notions of autonomy and nationhood. We would be ruled by one of our own, based in Wellington rather than in London.  The president would either be elected by the people or appointed by Parliament, either of which at first glance seems infinitely preferable to a head of state whose status is inherited.

Opponents of the monarchy make much of the fact that the monarch is an immensely wealthy and remote figure, far removed from our daily lives. They cleverly play on our egalitarian dislike of inherited privilege. But while they sneer at monarchists for having a sentimental attachment to royalty, they are not above resorting to shallow emotional arguments themselves.

They say, for example, that we should be masters of our own destiny. Well, we are. New Zealand functions as a sovereign, autonomous state – a republic in all but name – and has done so for as long as most of us have been alive. As the distinguished jurist Sir Kenneth Keith once said: “The Queen reigns but the government rules”.

A good mate of mine complains that the monarchy ties us to Britain’s apron strings, but in what way? I can’t think of a single occasion in modern history when our constitutional arrangements have forced us to do something we didn’t want to do or that wasn’t in our own interests.

Okay, so Robert Muldoon once insisted that Air New Zealand buy Rolls-Royce engines for its jets rather than American ones, and he committed our navy to provide support to Britain during the Falklands War. But these were political decisions by the government (or more precisely, Muldoon), not ones that were imposed on us.

The same applies to our historical policies of giving preference to British goods and our decisions to engage in foreign wars (or just as importantly, not to engage in them, as happened when the government wisely chose to stay out of the ill-advised invasion of Iraq despite Britain’s participation). These were political decisions inspired by loyalty to the “mother country” – as it was often called – rather than forced on us by constitutional ties.

If we were subservient to Britain, we would never have prohibited nuclear weapons or visits by nuclear warships – policies that the British government under Margaret Thatcher strongly disapproved of. They were entirely our own decisions, made by New Zealand governments that were answerable to New Zealand voters.

Arguments that our independence is compromised, then, are red herrings.

To summarise: support for the monarchy doesn’t rest solely on affection for the Queen that, with her death, will conveniently fade away and clear the decks for a republic. New Zealanders are perfectly capable of differentiating between a sentimental attachment to royalty and a pragmatic appreciation of the monarchy’s constitutional benefits.

They are also smart enough to recognise that the monarchy as an institution is much bigger than, and separate from, the personalities of the royal family. It may be harder to defend the monarchy with Charles on the throne, but the arguments in favour of it remain the same.




Anonymous said...

And add to that the reality that republics do not always work, and ditching the monarchy is likely to transform New Zealand into a piece of unstable wreckage like Zimbabwe or Venezuela.

Steve said...

Karl, you miss one possible option for determining who should be President of a New Zealand Republic. If we're agreed that the position is ceremonial not political then anyone can do it and lots of people would want to (who doesn't fancy a few years in Government House, hosting dinners with visiting dignitaries and swanning off around the world whenever NZ needs representation at something).

So sell tickets at $20 into a lottery once every few years with the winner becoming President and the proceeds offsetting the cost of the office - half a million entries would bring in $10 million and anyone who was really keen could buy multiple tickets. And, just to make sure that politicians can't accidentally end up as President anyway, ban anyone who has ever held any form of public office from holding the role.

Sure, we'll get the occasional drunkard or embarrassment, so limit the term to two years and celebrate the ordinary Kiwiness of most of our Presidents.

David George said...

Thanks Karl, that pretty much sums it up. I suspect that most casual critics of the monarchy have never really or properly considered the question.
Some great comments, in response to an audience question, from Jordan Peterson;
the dangers of the politicisation of the symbolic head of state among them.

14 minutes:

Gary Peters said...

Imagine if we had an institution that could remove a government that failed to campaign on the very policies that they are now deciding to inflict on us without mandate.

Imagine if that same institution could remove a government that made many promises and failed to deliver on a single one of them.

Imagine if we had an institution that could remove a government that was formed merely to spite certain individuals in the most preferred party as voted for by the electorate.

What a wonderful world that could be 😎

Paul Corrigan said...

Apart from your quoting Daniela Elser, Karl, a good piece.

She's a poor writer, her attempts at clever-dickery often fall flat, and I bet she's never even said 'G'day' to any of the people she writes about.

The pens: I think that a lot of the commentary and criticism lacks charity.

When his mother took her last breath he had to go to work straight away despite however he felt. He became the focus of everything and he had a nation to lead.

He is 73. He has had to attend meetings and briefings. He has had to be subject to ancient, arcane rites and ceremonies and language.

He's had to do quick-changes from a field marshal to a Scottish duke to wearing morning suits. All the while be a leader to his family and to his country.

I imagine that he's not had a lot of sleep in the last week and there are still days to go yet.

I don't think any of us have any idea of the pressure he is under.

I don't suggest at all that he is St Charles. But he is under enormous pressure that would daunt a younger man.

I am a monarchist. I tell the republicans who say they feel second-class citizens because our head of state lives in London that that's their problem. I never have.

We've had our own Parliament since 1854. We've gone from colony to self-governing 'Dominion'. We're as independent as any country can be.

- Paul Corrigan

Phil said...

In recent days the media are drawing attention to where the Treaty will sit in the new republic. We are heading in that direction anyway but it seems the Government don't want a discussion this side of the election on what a co-governed republic will look like. They have no intention of letting the public decide how go-governance will frame our future.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this could be put to republicans - which politician would be the last you want as President? Then imagine that person in the role. - happy now!
Possibly most republicans are leftists, so they would fully expect a President Helen or Jacinda, but what if it were John Key?
Jeff W

Nicola R said...

Yes, imagine a President Trump or in this case, a President Ardern or President Luxon or even a President Collins.

Unfortunately Karl, I don't share your view of the inherent common-sense of our fellow NZers. They are being raised to believe in causes, taught all sorts of BS at school and above all, not to question the narrative and weigh up truth from fiction.

My own daughter has told me that white people can never suffer from racism and that the holocaust was not about racism but as per Whoopi G, its just nasty white people being nasty to other whites. She was also told that Maori signed the treaty because they were starving (Probably true). I asked her why they were starving and she said, she assumed it was because white people were taking over the resources....

This is all taught at a fee paying decile 9 special character school with good pass rates.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous above was me. Google playing tricks did it.

Kiwiwit said...

I think you dance around, but avoid, the only real objection I have to the monarchy - that my children can never be the head of state of New Zealand. One thing I admire about the United States is that every schoolchild is taught that he or she may aspire to the presidency. You may argue that such an aspiration is unrealistic, but there are plenty examples of presidents who rose from lowly beginnings to that high office (Bill Clinton, for example). Here in New Zealand, the only people constitutionally fit to be our head of state are the members of a family in Great Britain, and, by implication, New Zealanders are inferior to the members of that family. I find that offensive.

This is, of course, a point of principle and you argue that the practicalities of the arrangement outweigh the principle. And, don't get me wrong, I would hate to see the flavour of new constitutional arrangements that the incompetent ideologues that currently occupy the corridors of power in this country would put in place at this time. I think we would end up with something like the Chileans have just rejected or, even worse, what the Bolivians have adopted. I am happy to see how Charles turns out as king, but if he can't keep his trap shut on political issues, I'd give the monarchy twelve months at most.

Karl du Fresne said...

I didn't dance around or avoid anything. Your angle just didn't occur to me.

Arira said...

Kia Ora ano. Ko Barnett Burns toku tipuna pakeha-Maori. I haere ia ki nga mutu i te tau 1831. Kia ora no te hapu a te Burnt Stump. Kia ora no nga wahine rehua - the invisible women.

Lex Parsimoniae. As a boundary, the commonwealth lies between the tikanga and King’s Law. Already, today, the commonwealth is merely symbolic in it’s power. That power is already reduced to symbol and yet it holds. And some of you want to remove even that. Let us think carefully and put aside our emotional and ideological differences. Perspective, is what the Commonwealth brings, cultural perspective. One must exploit the weakness of one’s opponent sometimes.

Andy Espersen said...

Spot on, Karl. And you did not mention that with Camilla as Queen Consort Charles is without a doubt better off than he would have been with Princess Diana.

She was really much more like Meghan is now! Much more likely to attempt to draw attention to herself, to bask in her own popularity, to be openly hostile to the royal family - than to support King Charles, the English monarchy and the Commonwealth of Nations. I bet they will be coming to New Zealand soon - and I bet they will be received enthusiastically.

Looking at the many photos of Charles III - he really looks quite handsome and "kingly". And that's what counts. He has been preparing for this role all his life. He won't ever mention climate change again in serious way.

Anonymous said...

You missed the crucial point that the monarchy as head of New Zealand comes at a very cheap cost compared to what it would be to run a New Zealand President and all the associated hangers on.

Arira said...

Just to clarify. I support the idea of the Commonwealth - a group of nations. I won’t bow down to no man. Or woman.

Scott said...

I just have real concern about our small country, relatively young in years, being captured by woke ideology. The media, the public service, the courts are all in the tank for Labour. We have no upper house, no privy council anymore. Parliament has been running completely amok these last 3 years.
The monarchy is one of the few restraints on our unrestrained prime minister. Imagine 3 years of prime minister Jacinda Adern under president Helen Clarke! 🤔

Anonymous said...

Completely agree with your summation Karl. Fundamental to distinguish between 'royalty' and monarchy. I'm only sorry, in our present predicament over te tiriti and the rumour that our judiciary is less than unbiased, that we no longer have recourse to the Privy Council.

Eamon Sloan said...

Scott suggested President Helen Clark. If Labour has its way it will more likely be President Nanaia Mahuta.