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16 August 2010

The Empire Strikes back: Arguments in favour of the monarchy.

Noel Cox, Chairperson of Monarchy New Zealand, is a lawyer by trade, and so could be expected to produce some cogent arguments in favour of retaining the monarchy.  In an interview on the website of the Victoria University student newspaper "Salient" he asserts that the primary advantage of the monarchy is "political stability and political neutrality".   That argument is inherently contradictory.  If the monarchy promotes political stability, then it is a conservative political force.  If it is politically conservative, then it cannot be politically neutral.

As it happens the monarchy is not politically neutral by any reasonable definition.  At the best it is the pliable tool of whatever government happens to be in power. The royal family has actively supported the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by British, Australian and New Zealand military forces.  There were constitutional means, however imperfect, by which US President George W Bush could be held to account for his role in the conflict.  But under the present New Zealand constitution there is no way that the royal family can be made accountable. New Zealand has a head of state who is neither politically neutral nor politically accountable, and that is a morally indefensible position.

Cox offers the opinion that "I donít think that national identity is at all central to this debate".   He has a point there.  A political system should deliver public amity, equity, peace, security and prosperity.  Whether those characteristics of good government are consistent with the popular perception of "national identity" should only be peripheral to any debate over the constitution.  But let us remember that for most of the twentieth century the New Zealand "national identity" was defined by New Zealand's status as a British colony and loyal member of the imperial system.   During that time, the notion of "national identity" was considered highly relevant to the monarchist cause.  Now that the majority of New Zealanders no longer choose to define themselves as British subjects, there is at least a degree of ambivalence to the New Zealand "national identity".  In these circumstances, it would be disingenuous for the monarchists to argue that "national identity" has now become irrelevant to the question of whether New Zealand should remain a part of the British realm.

Cox goes on to argue that "itís not so much the power the monarchy retains as it is the power it denies politicians. For instance, with the judicial role, itís not that the queen or the governor-general actually presides in a trial, but itís that the justice system operates in the name of the Crown, and is therefore totally non-political and independent of the government of the day".  If the separation of judicial and executive powers was only possible under a hereditary monarchy, then Cox would have a point. But some degree of separation of powers is the norm in republics as well as monarchies.  There is nothing in the monarchical system of government which guarantees the separation of executive and judicial functions, and nothing in the republican system of government which would preclude it.

He then states that "The powers that are vested in the governor-general should be those that are necessary to the workings of government. They should also include some additional powers which may be necessary in the case of a crisisófor instance, the ability to sack the Prime Minister".  Unfortunately that argument undercuts his earlier claims of the "political neutrality" of the crown.  On what principle should a hereditary monarch or an unelected Governor-general have the power to dismiss an elected  government from office?  The danger of the monarchical system is that there are no such principles.  Under the monarchy, an elected government can be dismissed from office at the whim of a hereditary ruler or an appointed official.

In response to the standard political mantra that "New Zealand will inevitably become a republic at some time", Cox quite rightly says "I donít think anything is inevitable. Iím not going to say that New Zealand wonít become a republic, but, I mean, what makes it inevitable?".  On that point I have to agree with Noel Cox.  The notion of inevitablility is propounded by those who want to persuade us that ethically motivated political action is either unnecessary or futile.  The idea of "historical inevitability" having helped drive the Soviet Union down the road to economic collapse, was then enthusiastically taken up by the advocates of laissez-faire capitalism in the west, with not dissimilar consequences.  Historical inevitability is the doctrine of fools and knaves.  It should have no place in the republican movement, and we should thank Noel Cox for making that point.

Dr Paul Moon, writing in the New Zealand Herald Thursday January  28, 2010 comes from a different perspective, suggesting that the debate over a republic is irrelevant, given that the queen only has a "token role" in national affairs.  This is a common argument.  It is also quite specious.  If the queen is merely a "symbolic figure head" and if symbolism is of no account, then there should be no objection to abolition of the monarchy.  But the monarchy persists, and, rather significantly given that she is supposed to be no more than a "token" figurehead, no democratically elected member of parliament is permitted to take a seat in the House of Representative  without first swearing allegiance to her.  That can be taken as evidence that institution of the monarchy is more central to the New Zealand system of government than is  democratic process.  Even if we allow Dr Moon's argument, we still need to deal with the fact that symbolism plays a critical role in human society.  If a society is to engage in the fraught area of political symbolism, then at the very least the meaning of its symbols should be critically examined and laid out for all to see. Dr Moon conspicuously fails to do that.

Dr Moon claims that "the people, and not a monarch, are the true sovereigns of the nation".   However, according to New Zealand law, it is indisputable that Queen Elizabeth is sovereign within the realm of New Zealand.  If, as Moon says, "New Zealand is already a defacto republic" and the law is irrelevant, then the people have assumed sovereign authority in defiance of the law, and there must exist a de facto republic which has no connection with the de jure monarchy.  If this is the situation, and I believe that to some extent it is, then there are dangers present of which Dr Moon appears to be quite oblivious.  When a nation's legal constitution is in conflict with its people's perception of sovereign authority, far from there being no necessity to remedy the discrepancy, there should be a great urgency to do so.

An editorial in the New Zealand Listener 30 January 2010 adopts a similar argument to Moon, though with a more overtly pro-monarchist slant. "It may be functionally obsolete, but that's the monarchy's attraction' was the Listener's angle "If it's now okay for the the Prime Minister to swig beer from a bottle while at a barbie with a future king, then what's the all-fired hurry to have the great republicanism debate?" the editorial asked.  Since when, one might respond, has informality been the standard by which political systems should be judged?  Would we be at ease with Commodore Frank Bainamarama because he can be a charming companion around the kava bowl?  Would we have warmed to Adolf Hitler because he was good with animals?  While the editor of the Listener might be able to answer in the affirmative in both cases, most of us could not.
A national constitution should be founded on solid principles, not to be surrendered on the strength of a flying visit by "a rather charming young man".  The world is full of charming young men, most of whom quickly mature into not so charming older men.  One would have to question the wisdom of deciding on the strength of a young man's good manners around the barbecue table that he, his father, and his grandmother should occupy the post of Head of State for life.  More seriously, the world has more than its share of "loved" and "revered" "constitutional monarchs" who at a late stage in the game turn a blind eye while their people are murdered in the streets by a rampaging military.  Nepal and Thailand are object examples.  For examples from European history it is only necessary to go back to Franco's Spain and Mussolini's Italy.  It needs to be said that monarchy is a dangerous institution precisely because for most of the time it appears to be wholly benign.

With a characteristically toxic combination of condescension and misrepresentation the Listener goes on to declaim that "like young teens who yearn to go flatting ..those who clamour for republicanism as the key to our sense of nationhood only underline their insecurity".   The monarchy on the other hand is portrayed as "an institution rich with colour, tradition and eccentricity".  So was the Third Reich.  The trooping of the colour arguably suffers by comparison with a Nuremberg rally, and Prince Charles would be hard put to match the eccentricity of Herman Goering.  If the British annexation in 1840 had been followed by a German invasion in 1940, the spineless New Zealand press (or to be fair, the Australian press in New Zealand) would now be arguing the need to retain the "colour, tradition, and eccentricity" of fascism.

In the same barrage of monarchist propaganda which accompanied the visit of Prince William to his grandmother's New Zealand subjects, Garth George, wrote in the New Zealand Herald 31 January 2010 that "William's all too brief visit has naturally brought the handful of rabid republicans out from whatever holes they inhabit...".  George's article is further evidence of the malice  which supporters of "a rather charming young man" and his "hard-working" grandmother direct towards anyone who questions the assumed right of the British monarchy to impose its rule over our people in perpetuity. By comparison with the puerile abuse which is the stock-in-trade of New Zealand's mass media, Monarchy New Zealand appears to be a paragon of reason and civilized argument.

The regime may actually be better served by the humourous writings of Jim Hopkins (New Zealand Herald 23 January 2009 and 22 January 2010 "Ignore the republicans Sir, come back anytime").  It is not entirely clear whether Hopkins is a genuine monarchist, or whether he has discovered that one can get away with sending up the institution in situations where one would not be permitted to advance any serious arguments for republicanism.  Parody or not (with New Zealand monarchism it is is often hard to pick the difference), Hopkins is one of the few media writers who is able to put the monarchist case without leaving the impression of overwhelming malice.  ("Ignore the gloomy republicans, Sir.  Most of us are happy to maintain 1000 years of tradition ... especially since we basically get the lot on the cheap... Be assured, Sir, Kiwis like a no frills compassionate bloke like yourself...We admire pluck in Outer Roa, Sir.."). Hopkins makes it possible for us to believe that some supporters of the monarchy might be ordinary, decent, harmless, if rather befuddled people, which is no doubt the case.  But that does not make the institution of the monarchy either ordinary, decent, or harmless.

The good news is that while nothing is inevitable, the paucity of moral fibre and intellectual rigour among the regime's apologists means that the New Zealand monarchy will surely struggle to maintain itself for another 170 years.