Why does one symbol matter, but another does not?

John Key thinks our colonial flag is an outdated symbol that needs replacing. So why is our relationship with the Monarchy any different?

While John Key has obviously decided that a change to the New Zealand flag is worth burning political capital on, he's not interested in altering anything more fundamental. Here's what the Herald reports Key as saying:

Mr Key made it clear changing the flag was his limit as far as a nudge toward republicanism went, describing himself as "the biggest constitutional monarchist you'll meet".

"I believe in the Queen as head of state and I don't think ... having a president does anything for us other than being a very expensive exercise, one that wouldn't work terribly well."

Now, there may be some reasons for wanting to retain the Queen (or, rather, whomever happens to be sitting upon the UK throne at any given time) as our head of state. Tradition, or the like. Maybe retaining constitutional links with the UK gives us an extra visibility in that market (think of all the media coverage of Prince George's trip Down Under!) But Key's claim that switching to a "president" somehow would cost to much and deliver too little strikes me as very poorly thought through.

First of all, becoming a "republic" doesn't entail making our head of state a "president". We could call our head of state whatever we want. We could continue to call her/him "governor general", if traditional form is thought important. Or we could mark our bi-cultural status and call her/him "ariki tapairu" or "ariki tauaroa". Or we could call her or him "symbolic figurehead", if we want to be literal about it.

Second, this idea that a new head of state would somehow involve extra costs strikes me as plain nonsense. It's not like we'd have to start paying for someone to do a new job. Sure, Queen Liz doesn't cost us anything (unless she or her brood turn up for a visit), but we've already got someone, Jerry Mateparae, on the public payroll doing the effective job of Head of State. So there'd be no extra personnel suddenly needed.

But maybe Key means that the process of changing to a republic would be too costly. Well, really? Sure, it would take a referendum to achieve - but Key's more than happy to have two referendums on the just as (un)important question of what flag do we fly, not to mention the silly referendum on MMP he insisted on having back in 2011. Aside from that one-off expense, what other costs would there really be in making the change?

Or maybe Key means that the process of choosing who would be the new head of state would be too costly. Which would mean that he thinks any new head of state would have to be elected by the people, necessitating a whole round of extra balloting every three? Five? Seven? years.

However, why directly elect our new head of state? That seems to me a very silly thing to do, given that they largely fulfill a ceremonial and symbolic role. Indeed, directly electing him or her carries real risks of creating conflicting mandates, as well as politicising the role in a way that we've avoided (so far) in New Zealand. So I'd favour any head of state in a republican NZ being appointed by vote of the House of Representatives on the recommendation of the Government. Which would cost next-to-nothing. 

Which brings us to the third and final point. Key thinks that "having a [new head of state] ... wouldn't work terribly well." But why not? Think about how our "head of state" works at the moment. The British work out who is going to be their King/Queen. We then adopt that choice automatically as our King/Queen. The Government then tells that King/Queen who they want to act as the monarch's representative in NZ and do virtually all the actual ceremonial work of the Head of State. The King/Queen automatically makes the appointment, and everything ticks along nicely.

Now, imagine a world in which the Head of State retains the exact same constitutional role as at present. But instead of the NZ Government asking whomever happens to have won a birth lottery to appoint a local person to do all the work, instead the NZ Government asks the House of Representatives to appoint a person to act as Head of State (with the House having to agree to that choice by some supermajority, so as to ensure broad support for the individual nominated). When the House gives its agreement, then everything ticks along just as before.

Well, you may say, if that's all that is involved, why bother? It's a purely symbolic change. To which I say, quite right. It's symbolic in the same way as the kind of flag we use to identify us as a nation is symbolic.

So, does that symbol "represent the thinking by and about a young country moving from the 1800s to the 1900s"? And has "our relationship to the rest of the world has changed over time?"

And do you "think, and believe many New Zealanders feel the same, that [the monarchy] captures a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed"?

Because if the flag is an outdated and embarrassing anachronism, what about being ruled by someone else's monarch?