Res non publica, Steve Maharey

Republicanism in New Zealand
Luke Trainor (ed)
Dunmore Press, $27.95
ISBN 0 86469 2560

Back in 1993 I went on a study tour to Britain. The two people who have done more for the republican cause than anyone else, Princess Di and her sister-in-law, Sarah Ferguson, were in the tabloids. Prince Charles was embroiled in Camillagate. The royal family was under siege. The British Labour Party was talking about changes to the monarchy which would make them more like their European cousins. Pomp but no circumstance.

On my return to New Zealand I did a few media releases on aspects of my trip. In one release I mentioned that the British were becoming so disenchanted with the royal family that we should perhaps start thinking about becoming a republic to avoid it being forced on us.

The release attracted a surprising amount of attention. Radio Pacific ran a listeners poll. My local newspaper, the Manawatu Evening Standard, put republicanism on the front page under a banner headline. But, despite all the interest, people in the know said that republicanism was a non-issue. They seemed to be right when the debate quickly died off as other issues hit the headlines.

To my amazement only a year later, on 10 March 1994, the Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, advocated cutting ties with the monarchy and the Privy Council. The issue of republicanism appeared to be firmly and officially on the political agenda.

I should note in passing that I am but a bit player in the republican debate. Indeed, I see it as a subset of the more consuming project of nation-building. But then I would have also thought that republicanism was far from the top of Jim Bolger’s agenda. So, why did he choose to give it such a determined nudge? It may be that he wanted an issue to distract attention from issues like health and education. It may be that he wanted to upstage the then Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating. It may even be that he sincerely believed in republicanism.

Whatever the reason, the Prime Minister created the climate of debate that led to the book under review, Republicanism in New Zealand edited by Luke Trainor of the history department at Canterbury University.

The book was published by the Palmerston North-based Dunmore Press. Dunmore have made a reputation for themselves by publishing, among other titles, short runs of a range of books on contemporary issues aimed at the general reader. This is such a book.

Luke Trainor contributes the “Introduction” and a chapter on “Republicanism: Models and Traditions”. Barrister, solicitor and lecturer Andrew Stockley contributes two chapters dealing with the symbolism and legal implications of republicanism. Lecturer Andrew Tunks and deputy chair of the Ngai Tahu Trust Board Henare Rakiihia Tau reflect on what republicanism means for Maori. Author Bruce Jesson and Professor Jane Kelsey provide the most theoretically informed chapters linking the emergence of republicanism to globalisation.

Yes, it is a book written almost entirely by academics, but they have managed to live up to what I imagine were their instructions to be “accessible” to a wider audience. Eight chapters, 189 pages, useful footnotes, a comprehensive bibliography and professional presentation make for a book that I am sure anyone interested the republican debate will find a worthwhile purchase.

The question is, of course: who is interested? The blurb tells us that “republicanism is firmly on the New Zealand agenda”. But is it? As a number of the contributors note, even before they had finished writing the heat had gone out of the issue. The Prime Minister had been instructed to stop exciting the National Party troops, many of whom still call Britain home, and stick to the main issues. And without a major public figure to advocate change, republicanism has slipped out of sight. We hear more about dumping the Privy Council and the Queen’s honours list than the monarchy.

So is Republicanism in New Zealand worth reading or not? I think so — not only by those who carry the republican torch but also by those who are curious about the likely future of the constitutional debate in New Zealand. This is because Bolger’s interest in the topic is not the reason republicanism is on the agenda. He might have put it there most recently, but larger forces will keep on driving it into the public domain as we work our way toward and then into the next century.

That assumes, of course, New Zealanders can agree what republicanism means. Trainor points out in his introduction that “republicanism, while too diverse a doctrine for simple definition, usually involves locating supreme power with the people rather than the monarch”. (p23) If this sounds like a solution to the problem of definition will be easy, reading Andrew Stockley’s chapter on “Becoming a Republic? Issues of Law” suggests otherwise.

Stockley provides a very useful overview of the legally defined role of the Governor-General now and shows that change to a republic would be “in legal terms — relatively uncomplicated”. (p110) However, the choice of what kind of republicanism New Zealand might best adopt is less straightforward. Do we need a head of state at all? If yes, how would they be appointed? What powers would they have? What would we call the office, who would be involved in the election and how long would they stay in power?

These are the kinds of questions the Prime Minister made no attempt to answer or even define when he so strongly advocated change in 1994. His failure to do so left him open to charges of using the issue for short-term political gain. It also meant the republican debate had a “headless chook” quality to it since no one was quite sure if the Prime Minister was looking to become the Bill Clinton or the Mary Robinson of the South Pacific. Or was it Jacques Chirac?

For the record my preference is for a republic along the lines found in the Republic of Ireland. I suspect this is what most New Zealanders would want if they had to choose an elected head of state because it most closely matches what we have now — that is, a president elected by the people and with a mainly ceremonial role.

Given that this represents a small change from the status quo, why bother changing at all? I suspect this is the view of most New Zealanders. There seems to be a slowly growing acceptance of the idea of a republic but no sense of urgency.

No doubt this relates to our history. As Trainor points out in his “Introduction” and chapter on republican models and traditions, there has never been a republican movement with a clearly defined objective in New Zealand. Our history shows less enthusiasm for monarchy than is often thought, but an equivalent of the movements in Britain and Australia are absent.

This lack of history forces Trainor into the curious position of having to explore the debate in Britain and Australia as a way of raising the issues that need consideration. Given the relevance of these countries to New Zealand this strategy is not without merit. However, it does reinforce the argument that the Prime Minister was creating an issue rather than responding to popular concern as was the case when Paul Keating responded to the Australian Republican Movement.

So if there are forces driving republicanism, albeit it slowly, what are they? Trainor points to the “…the erosion of the British connection…” since 1970. (p23) Bruce Jesson writes of the “young right” and the support for republicanism in the context of a global economy. Jane Kelsey sees globalisation and decolonisation as important. Andrew Stockley says that those who want a republic usually list independence, our position in the Pacific, national identity, the need for a fulltime New Zealand head of state and egalitarianism as their reasons. The chapters by Andrea Tunks and Rakiihia Tau cautiously explore what a republic might mean for Maori. Both are concerned about the Treaty of Waitangi as the real issue but see any renegotiation of our constitution as a chance to advance the interests of Maori.

What is curious is the explicit understanding of the authors that they are writing about an issue which attracts the concern of few New Zealanders. Mr Bolger is often accused of using republicanism to divert attention from the real issues. Stockley notes that “unless either the public or politicians deepen their involvement, Bolger’s 1994 discussion with the Queen can only be considered premature and — as he himself recognised — the notion of a republic by the year 2000, somewhat unlikely”. (p111)

Jesson and Kelsey, both left-wing advocates of republicanism, are placed in the curious position of having to try and rescue the concept from the “young right” and the National government’s use of republicanism as part of the drive into Asia. They urge Maori and pakeha to invest republicanism with meanings other than those advanced by the liberal free marketeers. They see it as an opportunity to explore “… new identities, new economic strategies, new forms of politics and justice, which reflect a different kind of world”. (p159) But they know that this alternative will be difficult to advance.

In the end one is left feeling that republicanism is a debate which is yet to be taken seriously in New Zealand. Our history is one where the monarchy has played an important role. Since the 1970s the trends referred to by authors have begun to create a climate of change. But the monarchy has shown an ability to adapt to new circumstances in ways that have satisfied most New Zealanders. Sir Paul Reeves and Dame Catherine Tizard breathed new life into an institution which was at risk of becoming out of step with modern needs. They made the Governor-General a meaningful, accessible and above all a New Zealand institution. As a result republicanism seems to be off, rather than on, the agenda. Other constitutional issues like MMP, settling land claims, a new honours system and the Privy Council are in need of more urgent attention.

Yet, as Bruce Jesson notes, it may be premature to suggest that republicanism will continue to be a low priority. Change will come in Australia. Change could come in Britain if Tony Blair’s Labour Party is elected. Our new MMP electoral system and the demands it will place on the role of the Governor-General may encourage people to think that an elected head of state is needed.

Then there are those slowly unwinding social, cultural, economic and political trends which keep dragging New Zealanders away from their traditional ties with mother England. It seems almost inconceivable that New Zealanders will carry on endorsing an English King or Queen as their head of state as we move into the next century.

The time for the republican debate may not be now — but change does seem inevitable. This is why Republicanism in New Zealand is worth reading. Each of us needs to be thinking about what being a republic might mean.

For the “young right” identified by Bruce Jesson a republic is a step to be taken by an independent country making its way in the global marketplace. It is a badge of maturity. This is a powerful but very narrow argument in favour of becoming a republic.

The larger possibilities are hinted at in the book by Jesson, Kelsey, Tunks and Tau. These possibilities amount to the “republicanisation” of New Zealand institutions. Becoming a republic need not be limited to the head of state. Republicanism in its wider context means power to the people. For those groups who see themselves as on the left of politics, republicanism offers an opportunity to discuss how our constitutional arrangements can be changed so as to empower people.

To give but a few examples, republicanisation (as opposed to narrow republicanism) might include a written constitution, Maori self-determination, the decentralisation and devolution of power, open access to information, a financial system that works for business rather than the other way around and a public sector that is under the democratic control of those it serves.

This wider republican agenda deserves close and detailed examination in the immediate future. As the years go by it becomes ever more clear that the new right project which has dominated New Zealand over the past decade has led nowhere and can go nowhere. It would be a tragedy if republicanism was to be defined (or more correctly confined) by the same project.

Steve Maharey is MP for Palmerston North.

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