When Chris Hipkins appeared on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, he described himself as a “technical republican”. At least it was clearer than when he stumbled over what a woman is.
In the blue corner, the other “Chris” said, “New Zealand will become a republic, eventually.” Of course, they both supported changing our New Zealand flag too. But in the 2016 referendum, the people didn’t.
Being one of 18 New Zealand Privy Councillors, but the only one leading a political party, one wonders why we’d abandon the monarchy in this new Carolean era (the era of King Charles III). To paraphrase Winston Churchill: “We may have the worst form of constitutional arrangements except for others that have been tried from time to time”.
Over the past 69 years, New Zealand has had two sovereigns but 15 governors-general and 18 prime ministers. Many prefer the monarchy over temporarily empowered politicians any day. Or worse, some ex-temporarily empowered politician reheated as a president.
What was telling last weekend was the ease His Majesty showed with protocol / tikanga and etiquette in his meeting with King Tuheitia. Shall we say, far abler and better than Labour’s man in London, Phil Goff? This argument that we need someone “local” seemingly flew right out the door. Our man in London personified local until very recently, and the world is getting smaller.
Yet His Majesty wasn’t done. He held engagements with kings, princes, emirs and presidents covering so many customs, cultures, and religions. Anyone who has been a foreign minister knows that takes skill. King Charles III made it look easy.
Of the world’s 10 oldest continuous democracies, eight - like us - are constitutional monarchies. New Zealand is either the third oldest, or the oldest, if the enfranchisement of women is included. Aside from showing how thin the roots of democracy are, there’s something in continuity and being above politics that constitutional monarchies provide.
The anti-monarchists need to show us how successful they will be. We don’t want to be testing the water with both feet. The Commonwealth is comprised of independent and equal countries, now 56 in all, or all most half of the majority in the United Nations. And it includes the world’s largest population, India, which is a democracy. The UK wants to join our CPTTP (Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership). And we now have a Free Trade Agreement with the UK. New Zealand desperately needs friends.
What Hipkins got right on the BBC is that New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, have unwritten constitutions. Unusual it may seem but it works. It is far preferable to the conniptions constitutional amendments are raising from Australia to the United States. While King Charles III reigns through Dame Cindy Kiro here, it is the Prime Minister who rules but only with the confidence of Parliament, and Parliament rules only with the confidence of the people.
Our constitution includes the Treaty of Waitangi, yet that’s predated by legislation, which received Royal Assent some 543 years before 1840, Magna Carta 1297. Along with the Bill of Rights Act 1688, they shaped the constitutional monarchy we have today and in the modern era, we can add the Constitution Act 1986, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, the Electoral Act 1993, and the Royal Succession Act 2013, among others.
Our system is sometimes called a political constitution because the guardians aren’t judges, but New Zealand voters are. That makes things responsive. On the other hand, some of the most beautiful constitutions come from countries with appalling human rights records.
Our unwritten constitution is not broken. Our unwritten constitution does not need fixing. We don’t need Wellington to define what our identity ought to be. We’ve figured that out already.
While our King and Governor-General must follow the advice of their ministers, they retain “break glass in case of constitutional emergency” powers. Our King and Governor-General have the right to be consulted and the right to caution. That happens and those private conversations are far more than tea and biscuits.
When the late Queen was on the throne she could provide experience handed on to our new King, from Churchill to Truss, from NZ PM Sid Holland to Ardern and from Menzies to Scott Morrison.
The bean counters could say we have an economical user-pays monarchy, that royal visit media exposure more than pays for. The Office of the Governor-General costs around $3 million per year. Naturally, there’s the upkeep of Government House and the functioning of the Executive Council, but that is where every act, order and regulation is signed into law. Rather important.
Of course, we could become a republic but only after a constitutional convulsion. Perhaps, no thank you. The rational response is to leave well enough alone but the emotive one is that we don’t measure eras by Prime Ministers, but by Queens and Kings. This new Carolean era began in the spectacle of Westminster Abbey. Queen’s song It’s A Kind Of Magic came to mind when watching our King pledge: “I come not to be served, but to serve.”
The identikit Chris’ beside Kiwis, for all our outward gruffness and egalitarianism, know we’re onto a good thing with our monarchy. We’re part of something bigger than us and it works. It makes us a part of living history no President or Prime Minister can ever match. There’s a mystique in majesty and it’s ours too.
For the monarchy to survive, in a New Zealand sense, all King Charles III has to do is strive to be as good as his mother was and he will be a successful heir. Queen Elizabeth II imaged a model of service seldom paralleled in all of recorded history.
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