Prince Charming and the Temple of Doom

The saga of Prince William’s encounters with the natives of New Zealand during his first Royal overseas mission – to open one of the world’s ugliest buildings

It is a fair bet that Prince William’s memories of his first official Royal visit will endure almost as long as the plaque he unveiled at the new Supreme Court building in our capital.

Before he left London, the Daily Express warned that a growing army of New Zealand republicans was preparing to give him a warm welcome. There was even a bill before Parliament proposing to test the will of the people to replace his grandmother as Queen of New Zealand for life with a democratically-elected New Zealand head of state.

Opening day turned out badly for the handful of rabid republicans who turned up. The Republican Party and the Republican Movement split over whether they should yell at the young prince to “go home” – or politely point out that we were opening a building that spoke of our ability to dispense with the monarch’s Privy Council and were ready to do the same for the monarch. They were drowned out by the protests of court employees complaining about their miserable wages, and their parliamentary champion – the indefatigable Green MP Keith Locke – missed the event when his plane was delayed.

The crowd seemed to be dominated by new members of Will’s fan club, the people who’ve bebo-d and Facebooked him into the upper reaches of the blogosphere, the girls who won’t wash the hand that was shaken or the cheek that was pecked.

It was victory by default for the handful of mad monarchists who turned out in their white pith helmets, scarlet jerkins and Union Jacks to show the prince that there would always be a warm throne here for the ruling member of his family.

The only sour note of the day was the Supreme Court building itself.

From the street, it looks like a jungle-engulfed Mayan temple. Inside, the main court chamber is housed within a soaring silver beech-clad cone, capped by glass to admit the light of the sun or the moon. It seems well-suited to the ritual disembowelment of the off-spring of the judges’ near neighbours, the fastest legislators in the west.

We are indebted to the architects for the explanation that the exterior cladding and the interior cone are inspired by the pohutukawa. It would have been difficult to make that link. It is also a relief to know that the tangled [recycled] bronze tendrils shrouding the building have been designed to be bird-proof and wind-proof. Both will be safe from entrapment.

This 21st century judicial landmark squats like a metallic cane toad alongside the charming, old High Court building that was constructed in 1880, closed in 1992 and neglected for years. Restoration of the old building cost about as much as the construction of the new neighbor that hangs from its side like a giant lean-to. It is almost impossible to understand why it could not have been adapted and sympathetically expanded to serve as the Supreme Court. Apparently, its category “A” historic places rating means its bench cannot be altered to accommodate the panel of five judges where three used to sit, and its jury box and prisoner dock cannot be removed. We are left to wonder why laws or regulations like this can’t be changed when so many others can be annulled or amended as quickly as they were passed in the first place.

Recall that, in 2004, Chief Justice Sian Elias warned of the dangers that would flow from a change that placed the provision of administrative support for the Courts in the hands of the Ministry of Justice with responsibilities for criminal justice policy, Treaty of Waitangi settlements, and law reform generally.

“In the restructuring the implications for judicial independence were not apparently identified and assessed,” she growled.

It is probably idle to speculate that the$80 million building project is akin to Montezuma’s revenge, or rather the Ministry’s revenge, on our most senior judges, especially since the Chief Justice is reported to have told guests at the opening that the design has found favour with the judiciary. Perhaps, she is being polite – or, perhaps, anything would be an improvement on the temporary quarters the Supreme Court has occupied since its establishment six years ago.

Prince William spoke of the building’s “striking modern design” and its status as a “fit and worthy home for the highest court in New Zealand.” Of course, there is more than one way to interpret those words. Perhaps, his architecturally-sensitive father would have described the new structure in more direct terms.

The Supreme Court building, we are told, has been constructed to last 100 years. That means it may still be here in 2048, when Prince William might ascend to the throne (by David Farrar’s genetically-based calculation). The imponderables are whether King William will be King of New Zealand when that happens, or whether, in the meantime, we elect a government with other designs on our court’s future or our constitutional status.

John Key has said that it is “inevitable” New Zealand will become a republic, but then took a bob each way by adding “it’s not something that needs to be rushed, and not something I think there’s a great deal of merit in.”

However, we should recall that, in opposition, the National Party fought the abandonment of the Privy Council when Labour was at the helm, having flirted with the idea when it was previously in government. National then threatened to abolish Labour’s Supreme Court, until Key read the runes of public opinion and scotched that idea.

My bet is that, even if Keith Locke manages to get his Head of State Referenda Bill through to a select committee, it too will be scotched. It would be logical for National to include this issue in the constitutional process that it plans to initiate somewhere round 2014 to abolish the Maori seats on the settlement of all historic Treaty of Waitangi claims.

After all, if we are going to muddy the waters, let’s do it thoroughly.