Friday, September 30, 2022

When political journalism morphs into crude emotional blackmail

Broadcaster Sean Plunket might have been taken aback to discover he was the subject of the second item on Newshub’s 6pm news bulletin a few nights ago. Then again maybe it was no surprise, given that few people are more keenly aware than Plunket of the mainstream media’s eagerness to marginalise – even demonise – anyone who challenges ideological orthodoxy. His key purpose in setting up his online site The Platform, after all, was to counter the ceaseless barrage of woke indoctrination from media outlets that have abandoned journalism for activism.

On this occasion Newshub not only decided that Plunket’s supposedly heretical opinion about the Christchurch mosque massacres was the second most important news item of the day, but that it was a matter of such gravity and national importance that it justified taking up nearly three and a half minutes of the bulletin.

It didn’t matter that a large number of Newshub’s viewers had probably never heard of Plunket and would have been scratching their heads wondering what the hell political editor Jenna Lynch’s garbled and overheated report was all about. Plunket is well-known in media and political circles but his public profile, especially beyond Wellington, is limited. Moreover, he doesn't hold a position of public responsibility; he's a private-sector media presenter and commentator with a relatively small audience. But the reason this obviously didn’t matter to Newshub was that conventional news judgment didn’t enter the equation. This was not a news story but a carefully orchestrated hit job, the clear purpose of which was to hector politicians into declaring they wouldn’t appear on The Platform again.

In other words the bigger objective was to torpedo one of New Zealand’s few outlets for legitimate voices of dissent. Plunket should take it as a great compliment that he’s considered such a threat that a far bigger, more powerful rival wants to shut him down. He must be getting traction.

And what was the egregious act that justified Plunket being presented as some sort of public enemy – a man whose views are supposedly so offensive that Lynch effectively insisted that politicians shun him?

He said the mosque killer was not a terrorist. While this is an opinion not widely shared, it’s hardly a capital crime. As far as I’m aware Plunket hasn’t sought to excuse, diminish or justify what Brenton Tarrant did. That would justifiably have prompted outrage, but Plunket has acknowledged that Tarrant was a mass murderer and described his crime as heinous.

He just doesn’t think Tarrant meets the definition of a terrorist. It would have been helpful if he had expanded on that by explaining his understanding of the word. But the important point here is that Plunket has said nothing that minimised the enormity of what Tarrant did. It appears to come down to an argument about language: was it an act of terrorism or one of mass murder by someone who, although held to be clinically sane, would be categorised by many people as deranged?

For what it’s worth, I disagree with Plunket on this. But I was curious to understand his reasoning, so I asked him to explain it to me. And while most people might challenge his take on the mosque massacres, his view is one that can be legitimately held.

Plunket sees parallels with the Aramoana massacre perpetrated by David Gray in 1990, which he reported as a 25-year-old journalist. He points out that both crimes were committed by socially isolated men – lone wolves – with access to guns. Another common factor which he thinks is significant is that they had no familial relationships to keep them grounded. (Both of Gray’s parents had died; Tarrant’s had split up).

He says there was no obvious reason for Gray’s actions and while Tarrant wrote a manifesto, it wasn’t a coherent political statement. (Plunket says he hasn’t read the manifesto but has spoken to people who have.)  In his own words, they were both nutters with a gun.

The standard definition of a terrorist is someone who commits violent acts in pursuit of ideological or political goals. Plunket obviously believes Tarrant didn’t match that definition. He prefers the term mass murderer.

More controversially, Plunket asserts that Tarrant wasn’t racist and he wasn’t anti-Muslim. “He just wanted to kill people and create chaos”. The government, he says, made Tarrant a terrorist for political reasons – to justify restrictions on freedom of expression under the guise of preventing hate speech.

The problem I have with that interpretation is that regardless of whether Tarrant’s manifesto was garbled and incoherent (and I haven’t read it either), there appeared to be a clear ideological motivation for the massacres. For all that Tarrant may have had in common with Gray, this vital factor distinguished the mosque killings from Aramoana.

After all, why else would Tarrant have targeted Muslims? For argument’s sake, he could just as easily have killed Mormons, Catholics or members of the Destiny Church – or come to that, spectators at a sporting event or people milling around in an airport terminal. But he carefully sought out Muslim temples; he knew where they were and what time worshippers would be there. That makes him a terrorist.

So I think Plunket is wrong on this. The judge who presided over Tarrant’s trial would doubtless say so too. Justice Mander described the shootings as a terrorist act and said Tarrant’s ideological motivation was readily apparent.

Nonetheless, Plunket is entitled to think otherwise. In a free society we are entitled to get things wrong and to hold opinions that other people vehemently disagree with, just as long as we don’t incite violence or harm.

That brings us to the nub of this issue. The real outrage here is not Plunket’s opinion, but Lynch’s attempt – condoned if not encouraged by her bosses at Newshub – to shut him down. That’s a flagrant misuse of media power and an attack on free speech.

Lynch, who is shaping up to be as malignant as her predecessor, Tova O’Brien, commenced her piece by referring to Plunket as a “shock jock” – woke code for any broadcaster the illiberal left doesn’t approve of. Her item included a brief comment from the sister of a massacre victim who appeared dismayed that anyone could think the shooter wasn’t a terrorist and who said she didn’t want politicians “enabling” voices like Plunket’s. (I immediately wondered whether she had come forward of her own accord or been approached by Lynch. Plunket told me Lynch admitted to him that it was the latter.)

Then Lynch ambushed Chris Hipkins, Christopher Luxon and David Seymour, all of whom have been interviewed by Plunket, effectively challenging them to declare that they wouldn’t appear again on The Platform – the implication being that if they didn’t comply, they would be endorsing someone who was in denial of what happened in Christchurch.  It was a crude form of emotional blackmail, played out in full public view.

Lynch even tried to draw in Jacinda Ardern, clearly hoping for a prime ministerial directive that her ministers should boycott Plunket, but all she got from the prime minister was a snide crack about not wanting to get involved in a “misguided publicity stunt”. Unfortunately this throwaway line was aimed at Plunket when it could have been more accurately applied to Lynch.  

Lynch must have been bitterly disappointed that Plunket refused to back down when confronted with his supposed heresy, and indeed doubled and then tripled down (Lynch’s words) by repeating it, to her apparent astonishment. Plunket obviously hasn’t read the rule book. Ego-driven political journalists with a distorted sense of their own authority aren’t accustomed to their intended victims standing up to them. They prefer to extract a grovelling mea culpa and claim a scalp to hang on their belts – and all too often that’s the outcome. But not on this occasion.

It was an abuse of media power as naked and explicit as any I’ve seen, and a striking demonstration of the threat posed to free speech by activists posing as political journalists. Lynch ended her piece by speaking live to camera with a patronising and vaguely threatening remark that “politicians should proceed with caution here” – in other words, they should think very carefully before dealing with Plunket. But the day our elected representatives take their cue from hubris-afflicted media assassins like Lynch will be the day democracy can be declared irrevocably dead.

Disclosure: The Platform occasionally re-publishes posts from this blog free of charge and I have been interviewed by Plunket and another of his presenters, Rodney Hide. I have no other association with Sean Plunket or The Platform.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Who represents the greater threat to democracy right now - Action Zealandia or the Dominion Post?

I see Stuff’s feverish witch-hunt for malignant local government election candidates has claimed a victim.

The Dominion Post reports today that Jordan Milburn, a candidate for Upper Hutt City Council, has quit his job at the Civil Aviation Authority “after allegations he had ties with neo-Nazi group Action Zealandia”.

Who made these allegations? According to the Dominion Post, a group calling itself Paparoa. And who is Paparoa? Good question. The paper doesn’t bother to tell us.

I found what appeared to be Paparoa’s website and it offers no clue whatsoever to the identities of the people behind it. Neither does a link to it from a UK-based website called Hope Not Hate.

All the Paparoa website reveals is that it “researches the far right in Aotearoa and works with journalists, academics and activists to counteract their hate”. No names, just an email address. A “spokesperson" for Paparoa was quoted in an earlier Dominion Post story but not identified.

So on the basis of “allegations” by this anonymous group – a group every bit as shadowy and conspiracy-obsessed as any on the far-Right, judging by its website – the Dominion Post “outed” Milburn last week. And now it reports that he’s lost his job, the clear implication being that he was forced to quit - or the CAA felt pressured to get rid of him - because of what the Dominion Post revealed.

Is this what we’ve come to? A once-reputable newspaper hounding citizens on the basis of accusations by conspiracy theorists whom we’re supposed to regard as credible even though the paper doesn’t identify them?

What makes it even worse is the note of satisfaction in today’s Dominion Post story about Milburn losing his job. I’m surprised the headline didn’t read “Gotcha!” 

The Dominion Post apparently sees no contradiction in describing Action Zealandia as a “secretive ethno-nationalist group” - whatever that may mean - while simultaneously giving credence to unsubstantiated claims by a group that’s just as furtive.

The paper outed Milburn on the basis that his voice sounded similar to that of someone calling himself Zane who featured in an Action Zealandia podcast. A Jordan Milburn was also reportedly identified as an editor of an Action Zealandia document in May 2021 (presumably supplied by Paparoa, though the paper doesn't make that clear) which contained "anti-Semitic slurs and comments". We're not told what the comments were, so can't decide for ourselves whether they were malignant or breached any law. 

No further evidence needed, apparently; guilty as charged.

What’s not established is whether Milburn has expressed any opinions that can’t legally be held and which therefore might make him ineligible for public office. I suspect the same is true of many, if not all, the council candidates targeted in Stuff’s sustained crusade against supposedly sinister influencers contesting council elections.  (As an aside, how often do you see alarmist media references to the far Left? Evidently they’re okay.)

Also unexplained is how the CAA was compromised or threatened by employing Milburn as a software engineer. Yet when the Dominion Post dobbed him in to his employers last week, a CAA spokesman obligingly said: “We can assure you we’re looking into this". Why? Even assuming Milburn is “Zane”, how did his private views affect his ability to carry out his job? We're not told.

Local government election candidates targeted by the Dominion Post and other Stuff papers are broadly accused of spreading misinformation, promoting dangerous conspiracy theories and threatening democracy. Any association with groups such as Voices for Freedom or the Destiny Church is presented, ipso facto, as incriminating, But I wonder where the real threat to democracy is coming from.

I fear for New Zealand’s future when the mainstream news media, which not long ago championed free speech, are instrumental in creating a climate of fear, suspicion and denunciation that resembles something from George Orwell. It becomes even more dangerous when government departments appear to have been frightened or bullied by the media into succumbing to a moral panic.  

I may or may not be right in suggesting the threat posed to society by fringe extremist organisations such as Action Zealandia has probably been greatly magnified, no doubt to their immense gratification. But as to the question of who represents the bigger threat to democracy in New Zealand right now, I’d have to say it’s the Dominion Post.

Friday, September 23, 2022

The Mahuta saga: shameful not just for the government, but for the media too

Five months after details began emerging online, the mainstream media were finally forced this week to report conflict of interest allegations swirling around Nanaia Mahuta and her husband.

I don’t think I’ve ever known the New Zealand media to so resolutely ignore an obvious political scandal. It made a striking contrast with their saturation coverage of National’s problems with Sam Uffindell. But ask yourself: which of those two controversies raised more disturbing questions about integrity in politics?

A New Zealand journalist friend of mine who has spent most of his long working life in Australia was astonished that the Mahuta story didn’t provoke an immediate and explosive reaction when it first surfaced. He remarked that even in New South Wales, “where corruption is expected at all levels of government”, the awarding of lucrative contracts and appointments to Mahuta’s husband, Gannin Ormsby, and other members of their whanau would have led to heads rolling.

The aggressive Australian media, despite their leftist leanings, would have been all over the story. But here only one mainstream news outlet, the New Zealand Herald – and more specifically its reporter Kate MacNamara – doggedly pursued the issue and extracted, bit by bit, damning details of what appeared to be flagrant favouritism in the way lucrative work was dished out to Mahuta’s family connections.

Other news organisations mostly maintained a resounding silence. It wasn’t until this week that the steadily mounting pile of allegations finally reached the point where the government was forced to act, though it did so in the gentlest possible manner by announcing a Public Service Commission “review”. By this time Labour was not only enmeshed in allegations of nepotism, but the even more serious C-word was being mentioned: corruption.

Labour had the audacity to spin the review as being motivated by its own virtuous concerns about propriety, but it wasn’t fooling anyone. Any self-respecting government would have cringed with embarrassment and shame from the outset, but Labour presumably feels cocky because it largely enjoys immunity from rigorous media scrutiny. Not only is the prime minister deferentially treated in media stand-ups (even Robert Muldoon got a tougher time in press conferences), but questions and exchanges in the House that reflect badly on the government – including attempts by Opposition MPs to extract information about Ormsby’s government contracts – are routinely ignored by the press gallery.

The announcement of the Public Service Commission review meant that the media could no longer ignore the issue, but even then you had to dig deep on Stuff’s website to find any mention of it. And on Newshub’s 6pm News, the tone of political editor Jenna Lynch’s coverage – in which she referred to the story surfacing in “nasty corners of the internet” – appeared grudging, implying that she had to report it but didn’t think we should give it much credibility.

Inevitably, sceptics will wonder whether news organisations’ reluctance to report the scandal is connected with their acceptance of taxpayers’ money from the Public Interest Journalism Fund. Of course it may not be, but media recipients of funds from the Pravda Project, as I call it, are now stuck with the suspicion that they are ethically compromised and that every story they cover (or more importantly, as in this case, don’t cover) is likely to be treated as potentially tainted by political influence. Perhaps media bosses should have thought of that risk before they signed up to the fund.

There’s another possible explanation for the media’s hands-off approach, and that’s their terror of being labelled as racist. Mahuta is protected by virtue of being the government’s most senior Maori minister and a highly placed member of the powerful Tainui tribal hierarchy. Shane Te Pou, a commentator much favoured by news organisations despite his Labour Party connections (which are almost never acknowledged), was certainly quick off the mark in dismissing scrutiny of Ormsby’s affairs as racist.

For her part, Mahuta pretends that technically adhering to Cabinet Manual guidelines on conflicts of interest absolves her of any fault. It doesn’t, and as a seasoned politician she must know it. Simply declaring a conflict doesn’t magically make it acceptable. A comparison has been drawn with dangerous goods on an aircraft; you don’t get to board the plane just because you’ve declared you’re in possession of them. Besides, there’s the tricky issue of public perception, which the Cabinet Manual warns should be considered in situations where any suspicion might arise. Clearly that didn’t happen when contracts were being showered on Ormsby like confetti, apparently with no contestability and in one instance even without a written contract.

Meanwhile senior ministers Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins continue to spin the feeble line that conflicts of interest are inevitable in a small place like New Zealand. Really? Are they seriously suggesting that in a country awash with Maori consultancies, Mahuta’s tight little family circle was the only source of expertise on a range of Maori issues that extended across youth suicide, waste management, housing, hui facilitation and conservation? Pull the other one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A corrective to Rachel Stewart's fantasy

Herewith, a postscript to my item a couple of days ago about Rachel Stewart.

A friend who’s on Twitter (I’m not – God forbid) alerted me to a series of tweets by Stewart striking back at me.

I have no desire to prolong a squabble that risks being characterised as two bald men fighting over a comb (Jorge Luis Borges’ great line about the Falklands War), but what Stewart has written is a complete fiction.

She says that when she asked Oskar Alley, then deputy editor of the Dominion Post, for a column slot, “he immediately sent the email to his retired mate Karl”.

Wrong on at least two counts - in fact, pure cock and bull.

First, a quick search of my emails this morning turned up only a handful from Alley. The most recent was in 2014, well before Stewart appeared on the scene, and none of them related to her – not surprisingly, since no one had heard of her then. They all related to a daily quiz that I provided to the paper in addition to my fortnightly column.

Second, I imagine Alley would be as insulted as I am by the suggestion that we were mates. I’ve never met him, never even spoken to him on the phone, and my few emails from him were notable for the absence of any pleasantries.

Stewart appears to have forgotten that it was she who went public, in a tweet in 2016, with the suggestion that the Dom Post would be better off with her as a columnist than me.

All this makes nonsense of the wounded tone in her tweets yesterday in which she complained of a “private and confidential conversation” with Alley being relayed to me. She went on to say I’ve "had it in for her ever since", but until Wednesday I’d mentioned her only twice – most recently in 2017.

She also made a disparaging remark about gossipy journalists, by implication including me. But then as now, I have almost zero contact with journalists and not the slightest interest in gossip.

Stewart appears to suffer from some sort of martyrdom complex. Consider this post, in which she complained that a review of a documentary film about dairying, in which she featured, attacked the film by attacking her. In fact the review mentioned her only in passing and towards the end.

She then suggested she was subsequently cut from the documentary because the producers were panicked by that one brief mention by an obscure critic, and she went on to pin the blame – without any apparent substantiation – on shadowy trans-gender activists. But the post served the purpose of placing Stewart front and centre, which seems a consistent factor in virtually everything she writes.

Right, now I’ll stop.

 

 

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

On Rachel Stewart and freedom of speech

I see that former New Zealand Herald columnist Rachel Stewart is positioning herself as a champion of free speech.

In a self-promoting column (that’s almost a tautology, since everything Stewart writes seems to be self-promoting), she draws attention to her recent appearance on The Platform’s Free Speech Friday and praises Sean Plunket’s online radio station – quite rightly – for holding out against the suppression of politically unfashionable opinions.

Fair enough. We should welcome and encourage anyone who’s genuinely committed to the principle that people should be able to write or say what they think, provided it doesn’t advocate violence or harm.

But I can’t help wondering when Stewart joined the cause, because in two posts several years ago I cited instances when she made it very clear that she didn’t think the right of free speech extended to people she disagreed with or disapproved of.

One of those people was me. Stewart couldn’t understand why the Dominion Post published a column by me when they could have one written by her. To be precise, she tweeted: “I read Karl du Fresne in the Dom and quite apart from the fact that I agree with him on nothing, I think to myself they could have me.”

Translated: “My opinions are superior, so why don’t they get rid of him?” – hardly a ringing defence of people’s right to say things she doesn’t like.

Okay, in this case I could be accused of being over-sensitive. But not so in the other instance, in which Stewart launched a full-on attack against an Otago Daily Times columnist who had criticised virtue-signalling broadcasters for showing off their mastery of te reo during Maori Language Week. Stewart wrote then that she believed in free speech “absolutely” but added that she struggled with what “basically amounts to gratuitous hate speech”.

Ah, the old, familiar “I believe in free speech, but …” line. Whenever I hear the words “I believe in free speech” followed immediately by a disclaimer excluding whatever opinion/s the speaker happens to object to, I file it under F for fake.

I suspect that what may have happened in Stewart’s case since then – her Road to Damascus experience, if you like – is that she’s found the walls closing in around her. Her own opinions once fell within the ideologically acceptable zone (she was in safe territory attacking dirty dairying and supposed racism), but the range of permissible opinions has narrowed to the point where even she feels threatened.

The ground has shifted under her. No one is safe now from woke vigilantes. The Herald's disgraceful refusal in 2019 to publish a restrained and rationally argued column in which Stewart supported the right of feminists to oppose the virulent trans-gender lobby would have been a wake-up moment.

To put it another way, my guess is that Stewart became a champion of free speech only when her own rights came under attack. But if that experience has made her a genuine advocate for freedom of expression rather than a Claytons one, that can be no bad thing.

Clarification: The original version of this post implied Stewart was sacked by the Herald. I've since learned that according to Stewart, she severed her relationship with the paper after it refused to publish her column criticising Massey University for cancelling a feminist meeting about transgenderism.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Ken Douglas: one of the last of the old school

Tributes are being paid to Ken Douglas, who died on Wednesday* aged 86.

I can’t claim to have known Douglas well, but I had a bit to do with him over the years.

I first encountered him when I was a young (19) and very green industrial reporter for The Dominion and Douglas was secretary of the Wellington Drivers’ Union. I was an occasional visitor to the union office on the second floor of the Trades Hall. Pat Kelly was then assistant secretary.

Douglas and Kelly were a bit of an odd couple. Douglas, himself a former truck driver, was a Moscow-aligned communist and a leading light in the Socialist Unity Party, whereas Kelly – father of the late Helen Kelly, who followed him into the union movement – was a Marxist who took his ideological cues from Beijing (or Peking, as we still called it then). But the relationship seemed to work.

Not all union officials were favourably disposed toward the Tory press, regarding the media as tools of the ruling class. Some were surly and hostile, but Douglas was always personable (as was Kelly).

It was only many years later that the two parted company – acrimoniously, in Kelly’s case. By that time (this was the late 1980s) Douglas was president of the newly formed Council of Trade Unions, which several key blue-collar unions refused to join. They were suspicious of the new umbrella organisation because it was dominated by white-collar, middle-class unions such as the Public Service Association.

Douglas tried to hold the movement together and eventually found himself bitterly at odds with bolshie former comrades who thought the CTU should organise strike action against the National government’s Employment Contracts Act, which aimed to strip the unions of their power (one thing David Lange's reformist Labour government had never attempted).

Douglas was in the unfamiliar position of urging moderation. Kelly, always more of a firebrand, was one of those who accused him of betraying the workers. It can’t have been an easy time.

The rancour lingered. I remember writing something about the union split for the Evening Post years later and phoning Kelly to get his view on Douglas’s role in the upheaval, thinking that by then the wounds might have healed. They hadn’t. “You wouldn’t want to print anything I’d say about Douglas,” was his response.

Douglas was a community stalwart in Titahi Bay, where I lived for several years. He was active in local sports clubs and served for several terms on the Porirua City Council and the Capital and Coast District Health Board.

He also sat on some high-powered corporate boards, including those of Air New Zealand, New Zealand Post and New Zealand Rugby. Some people wondered how he reconciled these well-paid gigs with his proletarian sympathies, but I guess he justified them because they involved publicly owned organisations, albeit operating in a capitalist environment.  

Douglas’s politics were anathema to me but I couldn’t help liking him. He had a bluff personality and a sharp intelligence that was uncontaminated by higher learning. 

TVNZ’s One News was drawing a long bow when it described him as “perhaps the most famous unionist in New Zealand history” (presumably the reporter had never heard of Fintan Patrick Walsh, or thinks history began sometime in the 1980s), but he was certainly one of the last of the old school.  

Footnote: I note that several media outlets are referring to Douglas as "Red Ken", but I don't recall ever hearing that nickname in his union days. The only "Red Ken" of that era was the socialist mayor of London, Ken Livingstone (or Ken Leninspart, as Private Eye magazine delighted in calling him).  

*The original version of this post incorrectly said Tuesday.


  

 

 

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.