(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 23.)
There are royalists and there are monarchists. Some people might dismiss this as an artificial distinction, but for my purposes it’s a useful one.Royalists love the glamour and pageantry associated with the Queen and her family. They devour every sycophantic magazine article about them and turn out in their thousands to cheer and wave whenever a royal visits New Zealand.
At the risk of sounding condescending, the enthusiasm of royalists is more sentimental than rational. It’s the fairy-tale aspect of royalty that appeals to them.Monarchists, on the other hand, may be quite indifferent to the rituals and trappings of royalty, yet value the monarchy as a constitutional mechanism. I’m one of the latter.
I’m more likely to walk across Cook Strait than to join the crowds lining the route of a royal motorcade or buy a souvenir tea towel marking the birth of the latest Windsor. Nonetheless, I believe the monarchy is the best possible form of government for New Zealand. Opinion polls suggest most New Zealanders feel the same.This is curious when you consider that no one ever voted for the monarchy. It’s a system we’ve inherited largely by historical accident. But the point is, it works.
That’s kind of accidental too, but good things as well as bad can happen by accident.All Westminster-style democracies have some sort of titular head over and above the prime minister. Some, such as India, are republics with an elected president, but New Zealand (like Canada and Australia) has the Queen as its head of state.
To many people it’s an affront to democracy that the most powerful figure in our constitution – powerful notionally rather than in reality – is unelected. Furthermore, they regard inherited power and privilege as fundamentally wrong and offensive. And it irritates them even more that our head of state lives 20,000 kilometres away.I understand all that, but it’s possible to regard inherited power and privilege as objectionable in principle while also acknowledging that in strictly pragmatic terms, the monarchy serves us well.
Those who lobby for New Zealand to become a republic overlook the fact that constitutional monarchy is not a system in which royal edicts are imperiously handed down, but one where elected governments make their own decisions.This is not Saudi Arabia, where the power of the monarchy is absolute. New Zealand operates as a sovereign, autonomous state – a republic in all but name. As the distinguished jurist Sir Kenneth Keith succinctly put it, “the Queen reigns but the government rules”.
Her function is almost entirely ceremonial. Her “reserve powers”, as they are known, are almost never exercised. Metaphorically speaking, they are kept in a glass case bearing the words “Break in case of emergency”.This might happen in a rare political crisis, as occurred in Australia when the Governor-General controversially dismissed the Whitlam government in 1975.
The constitutional correctness of that dismissal is still fiercely debated, but in a sense it became academic: a general election was called soon afterwards and Whitlam’s Labour Party was overwhelmingly defeated. So even in a crisis, power is handed back to the people and normal service resumes.Constitutionally it all seems a rather ramshackle arrangement, functioning as much by convention as by clearly defined rules, but it works.
One crucial reason it works is that the Queen is above politics. It’s to our advantage that she’s 20,000 kilometres away and has no stake in what happens here politically.Therein lies the big concern about republicanism. Whichever way a New Zealand president were to be elected or appointed, it seems impossible to avoid political influence in the process. Neutrality could not be guaranteed.
Republicans like to characterise support for the monarchy as a sentimental attachment to an anachronistic institution, but there’s nothing sentimental about valuing the constitutional role of the Crown. It’s a matter of simple pragmatism.If anyone’s guilty of resorting to sentimental arguments, it’s republicans who invoke fuzzy, feel-good notions of autonomy and nationhood as justification for having our own president.
We have our nationhood and autonomy already. Or haven’t they noticed?There’s one important caveat to all of the above. The Queen, who recently became Britain’s longest-serving monarch, has performed her duties impeccably. She is respected as a woman of wisdom, grace and discretion.
But is her son Charles cut from the same cloth? I don’t think so, and neither, it seems, do the British public. The goodwill that the Queen has conscientiously fostered could soon dissolve if her pompous, ineffectual and occasionally petulant son assumed the throne.That could place the monarchy at risk. While the republic vs. monarchy debate is essentially about rival systems, there’s no point trying to deny that personalities also come into it.
Perhaps by the time the Queen steps down, the time for Charles to take over will have passed and the crown will pass to his more likeable son, William. In fact you can’t help wondering whether that’s her intention.