A military Governor-General

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11 March 2011

The appointment of Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae as Governor-General of New Zealand is an interesting departure from the normal practice of appointing a member of the judiciary to act as the personal representative of the monarch.  Among western nations there has been a longstanding reluctance to involve military personnel in the business of government.  The convention has been that the military should be subordinate to the civil authority, and not the other way around.  In this manner Britain, since Cromwell's revolution, and the United States, through its entire history, have managed to avoid the kind of military administrations which have marked the progress of other European nations, notably Napoleonic France, Bismarckian Germany, and General Franco's Spain.  Closer to home, the "interim" military regime in Fiji is a stark reminder of what can happen when the military assume a a central role in affairs of state.

So why a military man, when there was presumably no shortage of retired or soon-to-be-retired Judges willing to take on the job of Governor-General with its generous salary and modest workload?

The appointment of the Governor-General follows a process which is conducted in secret by the Prime Minister in consultation with a small circle of confidants, so the general public is never privy to the reasons why a particular individual is selected to fill the highest state office next to that of the monarch herself.  There are however, some reasonable inferences that can be drawn.   The first was flagged by Prime Minister John Key in the infamous interview with Paul Henry in 2010.  Key wanted to appoint a person who would come across as a "real New Zealander".  Mateparae meets that criterion.

But why a military man?   The answer would seem to be that Key's government wants to invoke New Zealand's strong and distinctive military tradition, to shore up public support for New Zealand military engagement in places such as Afghanistan, while diverting the public gaze from the chronic and increasingly vexed economic and political problems besetting the country. Government is assuming that Lieutenant-General Mateparae will help to instill "military values" - discipline, order and loyalty to the Crown - in the hearts of the populace.

Less expected, and in a way more interesting, has been the intervention of members of the Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand (RMANZ) into the process.  RMANZ purports to be a broad based republican movement - it includes among its supporters Green MP Keith Locke and by all accounts quite a few other parliamentarians from a range of political parties.  However in practice it seems to be dominated by intellectuals from the liberal right, such as well-known blogger David Farrar.

The current RMANZ strategy centres on the concepts of a "soft republic" or "simple republic" which would differ from the present monarchical system in only a few crucial respects.  The  Queen would be (lawfully) removed as Head of State, and replaced by a Governor-General elected by parliament who would then assume all the powers, duties and responsibilities of the monarch.

The Republican Movement has an interest in the appointment of the Queen's personal representative because under the "soft republic" strategy they need to have a Governor-General who would become a credible Head of State in an independent republic.

To this end RMANZ, under Chair Lewis Holden, conducted a web-based write-in "poll" to select "the next Governor-General".   The results of this poll, which drew some 1400 responses, were published on Waitangi Day, 6 February 2010.   They showed the front-runner to be Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae.  Holden then declared that Mateparae was "the people's choice" for Governor-General, and suggested that the decision reflected favorably on the political maturity of New Zealanders.  A month later Prime Minister John Key declared that Mateparae would indeed be the next Governor-General.

At this point events took a bizarre turn.  Holden's blog, on the RMANZ website, ran an article which quoted extensively from one Areti Metuamate titled  "Jerry Mateparae: a man of great mana who will be New Zealandís finest (and probably last) Governor General".  Areti Metuamate has close connections with the RMANZ, the New Zealand Defence Forces, and  Lieutenant-General Mateparae in particular.  He is effusive in his praise of Mateparae.  Before Mateparae has served his first day in office, Metuamate confidently proclaims that he will  be  New Zealand's "finest Governor-General".  He also suggests, in line with the RMANZ political strategy, that Mateparae will become Head of State in his own right. Metuamate consistently refers to Mateparae as "matua Jerry" - a phrase that is  unfortunately reminiscent of Joseph Stalin's familiar title of "Uncle Joe".

ď My dad was in the army and my sister is in the air force and they both have huge regard for matua Jerry" says Metuamate "I found out why when I would call his office, send emails asking loads of annoying questions and he would always reply. He was gracious enough to meet with me and share his insights in a very generous way....Lt Gen Mateparae is the best person for the job...Matua Jerry will have huge support while he is in office, especially from me and other young Maori I know who have huge respect for him, but that is because of who he is not because of the office he will hold..."

Respect for office is one of the cornerstones of civil society.  It implies respect for all the rules and restraints associated with that office, including the rules of succession and lawful transfer of power.  Judges are particularly aware that the respect shown to them in the court is, for all intents and purposes, respect for their office rather than their persons. There is an implied requirement that an office holder should be of good character so as to bring dignity to the office, or at least so as not to bring it into disrepute, but that only serves to emphasise the importance of the office, rather than the person.

However there is a different view of  power and authority, generally known as "Bonapartism", which glorifies the heroic personality above the office which it holds, and thereby bestows upon the ruler the right to exercise power on the strength of his own personality, without respect to the normal restraints, checks and balances.   Metuamate is Bonapartist in his attitude to Mateparae, and that should be a worry, given Metuamate's  personal relationship with the new Governor-General, his close ties to the military, and the praise  he receives from a number of leading parliamentarians such as former Prime Minister Helen Clark and Maori Party leader Tariana Turia.

The RMANZ poll may have been be an accurate reflection of the popular will, but it could just as easily have been skewed by an organised write-in campaign coming, for example, from Metuamate's associates in the military.  RMANZ Chair Lewis Holden would need to allow an independent analysis of his poll data to dispel any suspicion that the poll was in fact biased.

In response to Metuamate's suggestion that Mataparae could "transition" into being head of state, one anonymous reader on the RMANZ website observed that it might be difficult to effect such a change within the Governor-General's term of office, given the amount of business already before Parliament, to which Holden responded "No. Go read Parliament's order paper. You'll see New Zealanders do in fact have enough mental capacity to discuss more than one issue at once".

Holden, who denies having personally promoted or endorsed Mateparae as Governor-General, appears ready to endorse Metuamate's idea that Mateparae could "transition" into Head of State within the next five years.  Holden has also claimed to have inside knowledge of an impending republican breakthrough to follow the 2011 parliamentary election and he has urged Parliament to vote on Mateparae's appointment, which, given the balance of power in the House could only result in a parliamentary endorsement of the Lieutenant-General.

Holden has has since observed that "military personnel are infinitely more qualified than sports or pop stars to be head of state, they have 'mana' and gravitas"   (This in response to a claim by members of Monarchy New Zealand that New Zealanders would, given the chance, elect the likes of Neil Finn or Colin Meads to the position of Head of State).  However Holden is adamant that he personally has neither promoted nor endorsed Mateparae.

If Metuamate has his way - which is not impossible, given that his political and military connections - "Matua Jerry" will "transition" into President (or Tumuaki) within his term of office as Governor-General, and New Zealand will emerge as a republic with a military head of state and strong connections to the US military.   It would be a bizarre outcome in keeping with its bizarre beginnings.