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.