The Malign Influence of Parliament?

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The "Republican Movement of Aotearoa" claims to be the only genuine republican political organisation within New Zealand.   Perhaps surprisingly, it seems to draw a certain measure of support from Members of Parliament who do not take their oath of allegiance to the crown all that seriously.   But the support of Parliamentarians comes at a price, as I discovered when at the suggestion of Republican Movement of Aotearoa Chairperson Lewis Holden I wrote a piece for the RMA Newsletter on the Oaths Modernisation Bill.  My contribution was rejected by the organisation's national executive on the grounds that the RMA "depend(s) on the support of parliamentarians" and therefore "can't publish an article attacking parliament as an institution, or oaths in general".   Holden's message, and my response, are attached below.    For my thoughts on the Oaths Modernisation Bill  click here

Unlike the Republican Movement of Aotearoa, I can publish articles criticising, or for that matter defending, parliament as an institution.  I can also publish articles criticising, or defending, oaths in general.   The main point of difference between myself and the Parliamentarians who dictate the policies of the RMA is that I am not afraid to debate fundamental issues, I am not afraid to draw general conclusions, and I have no reason to fear, or seek the favour of, any member of the political establishment.  Lewis Holden, on the other hand, is in the unfortunate position of being both politically and financially dependent upon the regime which he aspires to reform.   As a salaried state servant he feels the necessity to remain on reasonably good terms with the politicians, and for that reason he has been forced to put the really important issues "off limits" for public discussion.   [14 June 2008:   Lewis Holden states that he is not a salaried state servant.   The reference to being "financially dependent" is therefore also incorrect.   The statement is therefore withdrawn, and the error is regretted]

Holden, and the RMA, draw an absolute distinction between the institution of the monarchy, which they profess to oppose in principle, and the institution of Parliament, which they support.    The distinction is real, but complicated by the way in which Parliament and all its members have become beholden to the monarchy.   Any republic instituted by Parliament would be tainted by the fact that it had been conceived as an act of betrayal of Parliament's oath of allegiance to the crown.   We deserve, and have a right to demand, that our institutions of government should be founded on nobler principles than the pragmatic opportunism and casual acts of treachery that characterise the present regime.    Any republic presided over by the men and women who have previously declared their allegiance to the monarchy, and sought to impose the same upon their fellows, would simply represent a continuation of the evils of the current regime and would be a source of shame, rather than pride, to ordinary New Zealanders..

I acknowledge that there is a long historical tradition whereby representative assemblies - parliament or congress - have functioned as a check upon monarchical ambition.   If one is to make criticisms of both the monarchy and Parliament, as I do, the question arises, "What else but the sovereignty of Parliament could possibly replace the sovereignty of the crown?"

But this question is based on a misconception as to the respective roles of Parliament and the Crown in the here and now.   The New Zealand Parliament does not act to check the power of the crown, and could not do so if it wished, because it does not possess any powers independent of the crown.    The crown could act as a check upon the powers of parliament, through its control of the army, police and judiciary, but has not done so in the past, and if it were to do so in the future, the reasonable expectation is that it would do so out of reactionary motives.   Thus there is no effective system of checks and balances in New Zealand political system, and simply abolishing the monarchy, and thereby giving free rein to the powers of parliament, would not solve that particular problem.

The monarchy in New Zealand has signally failed to provide the kind of moral guidance or restraint  that might justify its continued existence, and which the peoples of democratic countries normally expect to find in their non-democratic institutions.  It has become at best a tawdry affair, discredited by the silly behaviour of dissolute princes, while remaining aloof from the serious moral issues confronting New Zealand society.   At worst, it has become a tacit apologist for evil, shamelessly endorsing criminal actions such as the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.   When the amoral monarchy goes, it will need to be replaced, not by an amoral Parliament previously bound in allegiance to the monarchy, but by some institution that can act to promote fundamental moral and social values.

The Republican Movement of Aotearoa's spurious doctrine of democratic fundamentalism, which aims to deliver all powers to the Parliament, is, in fact,  in conflict with sound political doctrine and practice throughout the world.    Whatever some might think, democracy is not itself a fundamental human value.    Those who in good faith support democratic government do so because because they believe that it offers the best assurance of a just moral order, in much the same way that Plato believed that an aristocratic republic offered the best such assurance.    But recent events have shown that democracy does not infallibly deliver just outcomes.  (See  On democracy )  Moral outrages perpetrated by democratic states are just as reprehensible as the moral outrages of monarchical or military regimes, and for that reason there must always be constraints imposed upon the decisions and actions of a democratic regime.

The Parliamentarians of the Republican Movement of Aotearoa forsee the day when the New Zealand monarchy will be consigned to history, and their purpose is to provide a vehicle by which can deftly assume equivalent positions in a new regime, in the same way that the Soviet-era KGB man Alexander Putin emerged as leader of the new "democratic" Russian republic.   These are people who have shown that they will brook no public discussion of their moral fitness to rule.    But the reality is that they are not fit and proper people to be entrusted with the establishment of a republic in New Zealand.

Email from RMA Chairperson Lewis Holden:

Hi Geoff,

Thanks for your contribution. I've discussed it with other members of our national executive. I agree with your sentiment that it makes little sense to add to the oath respect for democracy or rights, when the monarchy is totally at odds with these things.

However, we can't publish an article attacking parliament as an institution, or oaths in general. The reason for this is we depend on support from parliamentarians. For better or worse, we won't achieve a republic without the support of parliament.

Lewis Holden

Hello Lewis

I am not altogether surprised at your decision not to publish my comments.   From one perspective, it is an encouragement to me, in that it is an implicit acknowledgement that the RMA is unable to mount any rational defence against my criticisms.   But I am always disappointed when people like yourself go out of their way to suppress contrary opinions for fear of offending the powers-that-be.

If you really do need the support of parliament to achieve your political objectives, then by the same logic you will need the royal consent (sic) and should refrain from criticising the monarchy "as an institution".   That would be absurd, but no more absurd than the idea that if you do nothing that might provoke Members of Parliament, they will go about reforming the current system to conform with your own political ideals - whatever they may be.

Parliament may, at some stage, decide to abandon the monarchical system.   But if it does, it will do so for the same reasons that it currently embraces the monarchy.   Not out of idealism, but as an act of political pragmatism.   Parliament will abandon the monarchy when, and only when, the monarchy becomes a serious political liability.   Which is, to say when criticisms directed at the monarchy begin to severely impact on the standing of Parliament and Parliamentarians.   So your policy of attempting to suppress any criticism of Parliament could have the opposite effect to the stated intention.    As long as Parliament is protected from legitimate criticism by those like yourself who "depend on the support of parliamentarians" this country will struggle to establish any kind of free and principled political discourse.

A republican movement which attempts to stifle political controversy promises no real improvement over the present regime.   On your present course you may obtain "support" from those within the political establishment who are always ready to jump ship for reasons of political expediency or narrow self-interest, and who may see the RMA as a political liferaft to be kept on hand for the day when the current regime comes to its end.   But you won't get a lot of support from ordinary folk who respect the principle of frank and open political debate.

Geoff Fischer