21 September 2010  Revised 4 October 2010

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The very model of a modern Governor-General.

A striking departure from tradition and convention occurred in 1977, when National Party Prime Minister Robert Muldoon recommended the appointment of former National Party Prime Minister Keith Holyoake to the post of Governor-General.  Although he managed to sound like one, Holyoake was not a British aristocrat, as most previous Governors-General had been, and neither was he New Zealand-born but British-resident, like some of his more recent predecessors.   He was a New Zealand-born New Zealand-resident, New Zealand citizen whose entire career had been spent in farming and politics in New Zealand.   After Holyoake, all Governors-General would be New Zealand citizens, and most would be New Zealand-born.

Holyoake was of the rural gentry and on that account alone would have considered himself to be a fitting successor to a procession of British aristocrats.   But his sponsor,  Muldoon, was from the lower middle classes.  Muldoon was no respecter of conventions and was not shy about appointing a politician to the post which had always claimed to be "above politics".  He intended the Governor-General to serve the interests of the government in Wellington, and more particularly  his own interests as Prime Minister.   However the Holyoake experiment was short-lived.  In 1980 Muldoon  recommended  David Beattie, a Judge of the High Court, as Holyoake's successor, and Beattie went on to become the model of a modern Governor-General.

But for a few years after the departure of Beattie in 1985, matters took a  different course.  A new Labour Party Prime Minister, David Lange, again challenged convention by recommending Paul Reeves, a Maori Archbishop of the Anglican Church.  Reeves was the first, and arguably the only, Governor-General who came to office with a popular following.  But unlike Holyoake, he did not carry the baggage of party politics.  As a prelate of the church with left-liberal political sympathies, Reeves had the potential to unite the broad mass of New Zealand society.  He showed that the office of Governor-General, if occupied by a popular figure who was indisputably a New Zealander, had the potential to promote social cohesion and a true national identity.

It was not to last.  Perhaps it had become evident to the politicians in Wellington that a popular Governor-General would be a two-edged sword, and a possible pathway to republicanism.   In 1990 Reeves was succeeded by Catherine Tizard, appointed on the advice of Prime Minister Jim Bolger.   Jim Bolger was a National Party Prime Minister.  Catherine Tizard was a Labour Party Mayor of Auckland.   It was a shrewd move.  Because Tizard had been a Labour Party politician, she would never be  universally popular, and because she had been appointed by a National Party Prime Minister, she could be relied upon not to overtly favour the Labour cause.   She was also the first female Governor-General, which helped to position Bolger's National Party as an alternative champion of  New Zealand's strong, and generally Labour-sympathising,  feminist movement, .   But, unlike the more charismatic Reeves, Tizard never demonstrated the capacity to inspire and unite the nation.

Since Tizard there were have been no more overtly political appointments, and no charismatic leaders.   Every succeeding appointee has come from the judiciary.  While judges may be respected, they are not generally loved.   The office, which had been a political football since Muldoon appointed Holyoake,  was "kicked into touch" by Jim Bolger in 1996, when he recommended Michael Hardie Boys, a Judge of the Supreme Court.  Hardie-Boys was succeeded by another judge, Sylvia Cartwright, whose appointment was a second salute to the feminist movement, and she in turn by yet another Judge, Anand Satyanand, the incumbent,  whose appointment was calculated to bring New Zealand's immigrant Indian population into the political fold.

Over the past twenty years the office of Governor-General has been used to to send  messages about "national diversity" and  sectional interest from Wellington to the nation at large.  Reeves was the first Maori, Tizard the first woman, and Satyanand the first immigrant of Asian ethnicity.  But no government has dared to appoint a Governor-General with the broad popular appeal of Paul Reeves.  The Governor-General has become a political eunuch.  Like the monarchy itself the office of Governor General has become a servant of, rather than a check upon, political interests, and a symbolic representation of a state which accepts no moral responsibility for the conduct of government.   If the appointment of the Governor-General was put in the hands of the parliament, rather than the Prime Minister, as proposed by some, there would be no reason to expect a change from that pattern.  Parliament would not choose to create a charismatic rival for the loyalty or affections of the nation.  We could expect a continuing procession of unremarkable judges of varying gender and ethnicity.

The New Zealand constitution exposes the nation to a particular risk of  absolutist and autocratic government.   The "Crown" in New Zealand is the executive power.  The Crown, in the person of the Queen, appoints the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the Governor General and the judiciary.   The Crown controls the police and military forces, and through the Ministers of the Crown, the state bureaucracy.   Because the legislature (Parliament) in effect elects the Prime Minister, who is subsequently appointed by the Queen,  it may appear that Parliament is the dominant institution of government.  However Parliament is formally subservient to the executive (the Crown) through the oath of allegiance, and it is also politically subservient because legislators can only be elevated to the executive (ministerial rank) by the grace and favour of the Prime Minister.   Most legislators covet an executive role ( ministerial portfolio) and that ambition encourages an attitude of deference towards the executive.

In jurisdictions where there is a clear distinction between the legislative and executive roles the legislature jealously protects its perogatives against the executive, and uses control of supply (the right to levy taxes) as a check upon the actions of the executive.   In New Zealand there is no such separation of powers and interests.   The legislature is subservient to the executive because the executive can confer privileges upon, or withdraw privileges from, individual legislators.  As a result the executive is able to manipulate the legislature, to the point that it has now acquired autocratic powers.   Parliament has abdicated its  legislative  powers in favour of the executive through the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act.   What is worse, in the same act by which  parliamentarians surrendered their own legislative powers, they have also removed the power of the judiciary to review and control the actions of the executive.   With the legislature sidelined by consent, and the judiciary sidelined by fiat, the realm of  New Zealand is now a formal autocracy.

This abrupt plunge into autocratic government was possible because New Zealand is a monarchy in which the Crown is the ultimate authority.   It could not have happened in a nation with a democratic constitution.   It would be unthinkable in the United States for example.   The US Congress could not constitutionally surrender its power to legislate, even if it wished to do so.  It could not strip away the rights of the judiciary.  Most importantly, it would have no reason to do any of these things.   By contrast, New Zealand parliamentarians have both the motive and the ability to institute absolute rule.   Absolutism comes naturally to an institution that has been trained for generations to give allegiance to the hereditary monarch of a foreign power.

How does the office of Governor-General fit into all this?   Sadly, all too well. Governors-General drawn from the judiciary have higher standards of personal integrity than is normal among the politicians who appoint them to the office.   But as judges, they are trained not to question the perogative of the legislature.  When Parliament, however reluctantly, surrenders to the demands of the executive, then a judicial Governor General will also surrender.   This is exactly what Anand Satyanand has done.   He has signed off the Earthquake Act, and he has signed every Order-In-Council subsequent to that Act.   His personal integrity is of no use or relevance in this situation.   He is a pawn of the executive, rendered  incapable of resisting the autocracy by his own judicial ethics.

The lesson of the Canterbury earthquake is that no good can come of tinkering with the monarchy.   It is a fundamentally flawed system which must be fully uprooted.   The legislature must be separated from the executive.   The judiciary must be separated from both the executive and the legislature.   The Queen and the Governor-General must be removed in favour of  a Head of State whose duty is to protect the Constitution.