A Solemn Oath

(from October 1996)

This year a change took place in the requirements for the naturalisation process which transforms an immigrant into a "New Zealand citizen".    It had nothing to do with the "points" system which ranks prospective citizens by their wealth, existing family connections in New Zealand, occupational skills, state of health and so on.    And from the government's point of view, it was not a change at all, but rather a correction of an "anomaly" which had existed for as long as New Zealand has been under the authority of the British crown.

The "anomaly" was that immigrants from "non-British" countries like India, Taiwan, Korea, Switzerland, Holland, or the United States, were required to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen in order to become citizens of New Zealand while immigrants from the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia were exempt.

But from July 1996 all immigrants, regardless of their country of origin, are required to recite the oath, which, rather quaintly, reads "I ... swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of New Zealand, her heirs and successors according to law, and I will faithfully observe the laws of New Zealand and fulfil my duties as a New Zealand citizen.   So help me God"

It would seem that what is good enough for a former citizen of the United States or Taiwan must be good enough for a former citizen of Canada or the United Kingdom.    Why then was the anomaly allowed to persist as long as it did?   The reason is that it has never been an anomaly at all.    British subjects were deemed to be already in allegiance to Queen Elizabeth, and hence not required to take the oath.   The difference, some maintain, is that they did not owe allegiance to her as "Queen of New Zealand".   Surely therefore the change to the law was necessary to rectify this omission?   In fact, however, it wasn't.   Allegiance always has been, and still is, to the person of the Queen, to Elizabeth II who happens to be Queen of New Zealand, rather than to the Queen of New Zealand who happens to be Elizabeth II.

Allegiance to the institution may seem a plausible interpretation of the oath in these more peaceful times, when kings and queens can expect to die quietly in bed, rather than being rudely de-throned and perhaps beheaded by a rival for the crown.   But from a  historical perspective and in the legal context it is obvious that unless loyalty is to the person of the monarch it means little at all.   Loyalty to the institution alone would be a charter for any usurper or pretender to the throne.   And that, in essence, is why British subjects were never required to make a new pledge of allegiance to the queen - they were already her subjects, owing allegiance to her person, and so nothing had changed.

The change in the law -  inspired by the United party - was not a constitutional necessity.   Its main purpose was to overcome the impression of discrimination against immigrants from non-British countries.   But its effect has been to discriminate against all immigrants vis-a-vis New Zealand-born citizens, by compelling  every new citizen to become a self-declared monarchist.   This has complex and sometimes traumatic implications for immigrants.   In 1991, an immigrant from Switzerland, one of the oldest and most stable republics in the world, and newly resident in the Hokianga, publicly baulked at reading the oath, and was advised in no uncertain terms by the officiating Mayor that he had the choice of either taking the oath or giving up his desire to be a New Zealand citizen.   He then read the oath.   There is a harsh irony in this incident.   The Swiss honour William Tell as founder of their nation, and the story, whether apocryphal or not, goes that the foreign tyrant Gesler hung his hat on a pole in the market place and demanded that all bow before it.   Tell refused to do so, and so began the struggle for Swiss independence.    The hat is a satirical metaphor for the crown, which is in turn the symbol of headship and authority, and the Mayor of the Far North District had obliged this unfortunate immigrant to bow before the hat of Elizabeth Windsor.

It is not just the Swiss who experience difficulty with the oath.   The United States overturned their monarchy in the eighteenth century, and American citizens have an understandable reluctance to re-assume the imperial connection.   Immigrants from India may recall the Amritsar massacre, Chinese recall the "Opium war", and the Irish centuries of strife with their British neighbours.   Few of these people are eager to renew their subjection to the British royal family.   And even those who, like the Dutch, have their own royal family, may wonder why they should substitute a British queen for a Dutch one when they have emigrated to Manurewa and not to Manchester.

The moral contradictions which can arise from the oath are revealed in a letter to the "Rotorua Review" from a new citizen who claimed that he had sworn an oath of allegiance "to a united New Zealand".   He later explained himself by claiming "I was saying one thing and thinking another.   I was saying the Queen but thinking united New Zealand".     Such poignant self-justifications are an unfortunate consequence of an oath, and a citizenship requirement which is out of keeping with the political realities of this country.   It is the oath itself which is the anomaly, and not the apparently discriminatory way in which it has been applied.

And yet there is no doubt that the oath has been, and still is, discriminatory.   No New Zealand-born citizen is required to pledge allegiance to Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, as a condition of citizenship.   Why then should immigrants be subjected to such a requirement?

Some New Zealanders are required to swear allegiance to the Queen, not as a condition of citizenship, but in order to take a seat in the House of Representatives, or amongst the judiciary, or to serve as commissioned officers in the police and armed forces.   Until recently all intending lawyers and school teachers were also required to take the oath, though not all have been willing to do so.   Bruce Jesson, former Alliance politician and republican, graduated in law and never practised because of his refusal to swear allegiance.    But the majority of school teachers and lawyers found pragmatic reasons to take the oath, and equally pragmatic arguments to justify their decision.    For example, a District Court Judge in Rotorua commented during a recent case that "the allegiance is not just to Queen Elizabeth", apparently considering that the reference to "the laws of New Zealand" and "duties as New Zealand citizen" provides for an alternative interpretation.    A careful examination of the wording, however, shows the alternative interpretations are untenable.   There is no plurality of allegiance.   Undertakings to obey the laws and fulfil duties are given at the same time as the oath of allegiance but they neither contradict it nor provide an alternative.  If anything, they reinforce it.   Allegiance remains purely to Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors according to law.   Yet many choose to ignore the implications of allegiance to the Queen and see obedience to the law and the duties of citizenship as being the only meaningful commitments.

Are they not right?   Can't we regard the words of the oath as being empty and the crown as "merely symbolic"?   We can, but a nation which regards words as meaningless and symbols as unimportant imperils itself.   We lose, thereby, not only the ability to communicate among ourselves on a non-material level, but also the sense of dignity and integrity which are essential to the individual and the nation.    And ultimately we can lose sight of the fundamental importance of values like truth and loyalty.   A Prime Minister with republican sympathies who has sworn allegiance to the reigning monarch is not an indication of political tolerance, but rather evidence  that the electorate attaches little value to intellectual integrity and personal loyalty.

As a nation we have chosen to deal with the conflict by implicitly denying the meaning or importance of words and symbols.    The Queen, herself, we say, is "just a symbol", as though to say "unimportant", and as a way of avoiding consideration of exactly what it is that royalty symbolizes.    As a representative of the family, British culture, the Anglican Church and the
system of inherited privilege and responsibility, the House of Windsor has been reduced to an embarrassment, described as "the world's most famous dysfunctional family" by a New Zealand Herald journalist.   The survival of the monarchy now rests on the politically important and contradictory role of the Queen as a symbol of the apolitical state.   She is the archetypal state servant, and, like any other state servant, she is considered to be "just doing a job", and is not held accountable for what goes on under her reign.    She is not expected to have views on any of the great issues of the day - whether it be abortion, the Rainbow Warrior bombing, or economic re- structuring - , or, if she does, she is expected to keep them to herself, and to sign legislation into law without recourse to the claims of her own conscience.  She is the model and justification for all the others "just doing a job" or "just making a buck" who do not think it right that they should be saddled with personal moral responsibility for their actions as members of the body politic.   And that, I suspect, is an uncomfortably large proportion of the New Zealand population.   Cave Creek was the natural consequence of enshrining non-accountability in the constitution of the nation, and it was not an isolated incident.   "Think big" is now acknowledged to have been an economic disaster, but its authors escaped any political liability.   Vietnam was a mistake; the Springbok tour was a mistake; nuclear warships were a mistake; but those responsible for these "mistakes" continue to rule and continue to add to their catalogue of disasters because, in the words of Dr Michael Cullen, they were "born to rule".   Competence is not an issue.   Even when the required standards of performance are clearly defined - Don Brash's employment contract is an outstanding example - failure to deliver requires no apology.  But non-accountability in government should not surprise us because accountability is not part of our constitution. Collectively we have accepted that some are "born to rule" for good or ill, and we must live with the material and social consequences.

Nor should we ignore the possibility that the Crown may, at some point, choose to exercise its right to appoint governments or deploy the military forces of the state in ways that are inimical to democratic principles.    The controversial circumstances in which Governor-General Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam's Australian Labour government in 1975 show that the Crown does have power of independent action, and may be willing to use it. Closer to home, and in more recent time, we have the first Fiji coup of 1987, which demonstrated how well the Westminster system lends itself to the abrogation of parliamentary rights.    If, as happened in Fiji, the military act against the legislature with the consent of the Governor-General, the judiciary are bound to accept the legitimacy of the coup d'etat.   The first Fijian coup was a classical putsch, ideologically geared towards the retention of hereditary privilege, and supported by the royalist establishment as a whole -Governor-General, military forces and police, judiciary, and a minority faction in Parliament.   The attitude of the Queen herself, variously described as "tacit approval" or "tacit opposition" depending on one's sympathies, was instructive.    Regardless of whether or not the Queen's silence indicated consent to the rape of Fijian democracy, the Fijian constitution, which in the relevant aspects was no different to our own, provided an ideal vehicle for the transition from representative democracy to military oligarchy.    It is ironic that victims of the Fiji coups who fled to New Zealand as penniless refugees may be  required to renew allegiance to the monarch who betrayed their hopes for their original homeland.

The ultimate authority of the crown, manifested in the overthrow of the Whitlam and Bavadra governments, is, like the nuclear deterrent, there as a means of last resort. Its very potential to destroy the consensual basis of social order means that it is unlikely to be exercised recklessly.    But can the body politic sleep easy knowing that someone up there has his or her finger on the constitutional doomsday button?    When there is no political crisis the question seems hypothetical.    If and when there is a crisis, will it be too late to start examining the dangers inherent in our constitution?

There are two possible responses to the oath - to swear or not to swear.    Those who swear may be already convinced royalists; they may be people who, when faced with the choice, make a genuine commitment to the monarchy; they may be people who do not properly comprehend the nature of the oath; or they may be simply insincere.   With the first two groups we can agree to disagree; for the third we can feel sympathy; but the last group causes grave concern.     Its members are not wholly to blame for their own situation; they are forced by statute into a position which they would never have voluntarily assume.    The state has gained compliance to its will; citizens have learned to compromise their principles.    If that is how we choose to perceive the process of becoming a New Zealander then what is to distinguish "New Zealander" from fascist"?

A saving grace is that the collective will has, in at least a few cases, run up against the rock of individual conscience.    Those who will not swear, and are consequently rejected as prospective New Zealand citizens, members of parliament, judges, police or military officers are, arguably without exception, serious thinkers and principled individuals.   They are not the sort of people New Zealand can easily do without, and we should not be turning them away from our door.    As heros of conscience, they are more appropriate role models than the pragmatists and casuists who throng the corridors of the Beehive.   If the state is implicitly saying that we need more Jim Bolgers and fewer Bruce Jessons then it is making, and enforcing, a type of value judgement which is inconsistent with the ideals of a liberal democracy.

Finally it may be argued that the Queen is, by any practical definition, a foreign head of state, and even if that were the only objection which could be raised against her, it might be sufficient to justify the overthrow of the monarchy in New Zealand.    It would be paradoxical for us to have a foreign head of state combined with a strong sense of nationhood, and we don't have both.   Notwithstanding the All Blacks, the America's Cup and David Lange's sally against nuclear navies, New Zealand is clearly not a nation in, and for, itself.    From "where Britain goes we go" (Michael Savage) to "All the way with LBJ" (Keith Holyoake) and "New Zealand as part of Asia" (Jim Bolger) the New Zealand state has adopted a subservient position to the powers that be in the world around us.   Would things be different if New Zealand had its own head of state?   I believe they would.   If we had a New Zealander as head of state and symbol of the nation, would our national sovereignty, both political and economic, have been so seriously compromised as it has been in recent years?   I believe not.

That does not mean that we should all be required to swear an oath of allegiance to "So and so, President of Aotearoa-New Zealand, according to the constitution".

The English language makes "swearing" synonymous with obscenity, and equates an "oath" to a blasphemy.   Better, perhaps, to listen to what the language is telling us and what common sense confirms: that no good purpose can be served by swearing an oath of allegiance to anyone or anything.   When Lear's daughter Cordelia was asked for a declaration of love and loyalty she would only reply "according to my bond".    Our new citizens, our legislators, our police and our judiciary should not be subject to the demands of an oath, which, like the demands Lear placed on his daughters, can only lead to disappointment and betrayal.   They should be allowed to serve "according to their bond" with conscience as their guide and God as their judge.   It is just a pity that the last Parliament chose to impose the oath on all immigrants, instead of abolishing it for all time.

October 1996

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