Should the new prince born today be long to reign over us? Or should he never inherit the throne? I confess the question's thornier than I thought

The front pages have been fun: The Sun retitled itself The Son. The Daily Mirror went with the cutesy 'Our Little Prince'. The Daily Mail has fun with Prince Charles saying 'Oh Boy! One's a Grandpa'. (They're all here). But what does a new royal heir mean for us in New Zealand?

I've long assumed myself a republican as someone who wants to grow and expand New Zealand's sense of nationhood and independence. Our pioneer ancestors started, as James Belich has written, trying to be Better Britons. We were psychologically and politically part of Europe. But that faded through the 20th century. We have swung in behind the United States (only to pull away and then tack back) and in 1996 Jim Bolger became the first PM to declare New Zealand was part of Asia. In this same generation we've discovered the South Pacific and embraced our Polynesian roots.

We are a country, quite simply, whose history has been overcome by our geography.

That's largely been seen as a good thing - as growing up and cutting the apron strings. But when I did my study into our constitutional arrangments back in 2006 one of the thoughts that hit me was where our European roots and traditions sit in this evolving country of ours.

I'm a fan of a small and nimble written constitution; one of the reasons being that I want to preserve the best of our European liberal rights and traditions against the sometimes corrosive forces of history.

And that's at the heart of why I wonder whether I'm still much of a republican at all. We've just dug into this for our monarchy v republic debate on The Vote and I found the monarchist arguments more compelling than I expected. The easy line is that "it ain't broke". So why change? The better line is to say that it's served us remarkably well and offers a constitutional stability and dispassionate head of state that shouldn't be taken for granted.

While Bolger, Helen Clark and John Key have all opined that it's "inevitable" that New Zealand will one day ditch the monarchy, I'm no longer so sure. 'The Firm' has proved quite adaptive, Charles and Camilla are running a pretty tight ship these days and doing everything possible to make the Prince's second wife acceptable to the wider public (could she be any more offensive than Prince Phillip?) and Wills and Kate are winning over a new generation with their faux 'we're just like you' schtick.

I understand the fakery of it all. It's mad to appoint people to any job, let alone this one, by the fortune of birth. It's anti-meritocracy. This is a mega-rich, elitist family that stems from Germany via London and has little relevance to modern New Zealand. Our head of state reflects the politics of the 1500s more than our century. The prejudice is there in statute - the monarch of New Zealand has to be Anglican. And let's be real, while it's not technically impossible they'll marry a Hindu or Muslim or someone of African descent, it's about as likely as me becoming President of New Zealand! 

I get all those arguments. And yet...

The current system works. While you'd never choose it, there is value in having some distance and dispassion when it comes to a head of state. Not to mention heritage and a way of behaving well founded in convention.

The Queen spends her entire life, from a New Zealand constitutional point of view, waiting in the wings, just in case. Of course that's mostly a fiction. She acts on advice from the government and legal expertise. But it's a useful fiction that separates powers. The person who gets to ref any constitutional crisis would not be caught up in their own history or sense of New Zealandness.

I mean, how would Keith Holyoake or Cath Tizard have handled a real crisis given their political allegiances? I know they'd take advice and step back and think beyond themselves and so on. And yet... Is it better to have a referee who's never been in the game at all?

What's more, part of me wants to protect those enlightenment values we brought with us from Europe in this post-colonial, globalised, money-obsessed world. And oddly enough, this elitist, prejudice institution might just have a part to play. Remember, the magna carta is part of our constitution too, in part because of that system. Does our commitment to the Bill of Rights and other protections diminish if we go republican? Not in the short-term, but is there a risk further on as our geography becomes more dominant? There's not the same tradition of those rights in the Asia-Pacific region.

Then there's the privy council argument. You know, the one that goes 'we gave up access to the best legal minds in the world (and the clarity of distance) for the sake of our national ego'. Of course the virtues are greater than that, but you'd be foolish to ignore the truth in that argument. And it has more sway with the question of a New Zealand President. Sure, we can name one or two suitable ones. But do we have a talent pool deep enough to replace our head of state every five years?

And I was intrigued to learn we in New Zealand don't pay a cent for the monarchy's upkeep - just the bill for the Governor-General and the trips down here. It's the British taxpayer who has to pay a million pounds so Kate and Wills can rennovate Kensington Palace for their new prince.

So I'm more torn on this issue than I have been in the past. But is a New Zealand republic inevitable? I don't think so. The argument is still very much alive.

After The Vote, we got emailed a posted - 'Keep Marm and carry on'. Very clever. I'm not sure I'm entirely signed up to that, but I can certainly see more value in that argument than I have before.


Comments (11)

by Rich on July 23, 2013

just the bill for the Governor-General 

That ain't small. Government House occupies an entire suburb - what's the foregone interest on that?

And we don't need a president. Just have the PM become titular as well as defacto HoS. Don't like their politics? Don't vote for them then.

by Morgan Jones on July 23, 2013
Morgan Jones

My preference is for no singular Head of State at all, no monarchs, no presidents, not even Governors-General. There are very few examples in the world where an elected Head of State hasn't led to excessive populism and personality politics. Instead I'd like to see the necessary oversight responsibilities and powers given to the Supreme Court and an elected, independent Speaker of the House.

by stuart munro on July 24, 2013
stuart munro

The British 'firm' are a proof of the classical model of education, the arete, just as our current pm is a disproof of the value of markets to society.

But certainly the speaker ought to be a public appointment, perhaps a career step for ombudsmen. As their policies failures and personal shortcomings render NZ's major parties steadily less popular, supplying a speaker comes at a greater cost, and the pressure of partiality has grown. Better to have non-partisan speakers.

by Alan Johnstone on July 24, 2013
Alan Johnstone

We effectively already have a system where the PM appoints a fairly non political figure as Head of State. The idea that the monarch hires and fires the GC is a paper fiction.

NZ is really already a parliamentry republic in every meaningful sense of the word.

It would make sense to formalise this at some point. I under stand the desire not to sack Liz, she seems a game old bird. See not reason to hire her son though.

A 1 line bill saying "upon the death of the current queen, the office of king/queen of NZ is abolished and all duties of post vested in HOS appointed by parliament"



by Rex Ahdar on July 24, 2013
Rex Ahdar

The republic v constutional monarchy debate does not generate much public interest in NZ. I tend to share that 'ho hum' stance. In terms of the major issues of the day, it is fairly well down the pecking order.

The arcane details of our constitutional structure seem rather less pressing than issues such as:

abortion on demand; rising rates of (relative) poverty; the disintegration of the family; the redefinition of marriage; escalating violence; widespread abuse of drugs; the emergence of the surveillance society;etc, etc

Very few things are "inevitable". Yes, I know that 'death and taxes' are. Perhaps one could add to that list 'Scunthorpe will never win the EPL' [English Premier League... that's soccer for the non-sports follower] and 'a woman will become Pope'. But you never know.... 


by Tim Watkin on July 25, 2013
Tim Watkin

@Rich, that would place immense power in the hands of the PM with few checks and balances. We already have one of the most powerful PMs in the world – no upper house or Lords, no Congress, no written constitution. MMP is the only balance. Adding to that power makes no sense.

And I guess there's an opportunity cost re the G-G's properties – Wellington and Auckland. And they cost $4-5m per year now. But presumably any president would take them over and certainly they'd remain historic public buildings and would never be demolished for, say, a block of flats.

@ Alan. You initially start to make the argument for no change. Given we're all-but a republic, why take the risks of change? Does it make sense to formalise as it opens holes for debate. Do we lose the detachment? As Mike Moore has always said, you couldn't add that line without a full constitutional review and some sort of people's/experts convention. And you'd potentially some Waitangi claims. So not simple at all.

by john common on July 25, 2013
john common

To adopt royal parlance, perhaps one's views change as one gets older?

by william blake on July 25, 2013
william blake

The Queen is not a subject.

by Alan Johnstone on July 26, 2013
Alan Johnstone

The pragmatist in me can see that the system is working well enough and we should leave well alone.

The engineer in me grates at the shonky design and wants best practice and not just "good enough".

Btw I don't accept that it opens up Waitangi claims; the rights laid out in the treaty can be covered by the state. Then again, I don't accept the premise that the treaty of Waitangi has created a "partnership" and that there are two parties to it. For me Maori ceased to exist as a seperate legal entity the second the treaty was signed, they became british subjects just like everyone else.


by LJ Holden on July 28, 2013
LJ Holden

I'm quite surprised by this to be honest Tim. I was in the audience during the filming of the vote, and I think the mood was best reflected in the difference between the two levels of support for a Kiwi head of State based on the audience votes: 43% support at the start (about what we usually see in public polls on the issue) and 65% support at afterwards.

The claim that the monarchy "works" ignores the simple fact, as other commenters have said here, that the monarchy really has nothing to do with the operation of our democracy. Simon O'Connor even admitted that during the debate. For all the hysteria Ron Mark spewed forth, even he had to concede that the stability of our government was not down to the monarchy, but to us - New Zealanders. 

The question of whether the monarchy "works" was never actually addressed by the other side - it was, in the patronising way, assumed that simply because NZers like the Royals and their celebrity status that therefore we want to keep the monarchy. And yet we don't see the Irish or Americans rushing to restore the British royals as their head of State. The reality is that the monarchy doesn't "work" for us. It works for its country of origin - the United Kingdom. That's it.

Instead, as other commenters have noted, we have a de facto head of State, the Governor-General, who does work for us. The transition to a Kiwi head of State, as Laila Harre pointed out, is about transitioning this office into a full head of State. Of course the opponents of change try to overcomplicate this and make it seem really really hard, but in fact the weight of academic literature on the issue shows us that it is pretty straightforward.

by Fentex on July 29, 2013

The argument that it works is wrong and stands on it's shaky ground only because it's never been substantially tested.

The only reason it can be said to work is because it does nothing and therefore isn't seen to fail - the Governor General does what our government tells them.

It's the day they don't that will reveal how hollow a claim that it works is.

The only argument I've heard supporting the monarchy that makes any sense to me is that all the paparazzi nonsense is thankfully directed away from any practical component of our government. That the politics of personality is discouraged by having somewhere remote from our parliament for courtiers to do their fawning.

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