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Thursday, 7 May 2009

Paul Holmes: A right royal debate

NZH Sunday May 03, 2009
It can seem absurd, when you think about it, that our head of state is an elderly, unelected woman who lives in a Victorian palace

in an old imperial city on the other side of the world.

Of course, the Queen has occupied the throne for nearly 60 years and has fulfilled her role as Queen with impeccable propriety.

Apart from the famous period in the fortnight after the death of Princess Diana when she so hopelessly misread public sentiment in Britain and round the world, I cannot recall her ever putting a foot wrong.

But that is not the point.

What does a modern King or Queen of England have to do remotely with us? Why should such a figure be our head of state?

United Future leader Peter Dunne has raised the republican issue again. He wants to move forward to establish ourselves as an independent republic, starting with a referendum before the next election.

A new survey finds people pretty evenly divided between maintaining the monarch and standing on our own with, presumably, our own president.

He says he is tired of politicians who mutter that it is inevitable we become a republic and then do nothing about it.

So, what should we do? It is a hard one. There are probably good reasons to swing either way.

It is a mysterious and ancient thing, kingship. Every culture in the world has made kings at some point. Many have got rid of them too. Even into our modern, rational era, kingship hangs around. Somehow it has lasted.

And even nations that have rejected kingship still bestow upon certain leaders and families a royal status.

In the United States, the President is in possession of kingly powers, a kingly apparatus, kingly protection, kingly motorcades and kingly mana.

The Americans for a long time imbued the Kennedy family with a kind of royal status. The Kennedy White House in the early 60s was known as Camelot, King Arthur's court, in which all was beautiful and young and pure.

The endorsement, or anointment, if you like, of Barack Obama by Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy elevated Obama hugely, effectively placing an ermine robe upon his shoulders.

Of course, in the United States if you do not like the king, he can be got rid of every four years.

What I am saying is that no matter what system of government we have, we seem to appoint monarchs anyway, so it may not matter how we appoint our head of state. Yet it does of course.

Again, in the end it does not seem right any more that our head of state, the ultimate authority, is an old lady with a posh voice rattling round that vast palace down the end of The Mall who happens to be the Queen of England.

The Queen may have a genuine affection for New Zealand. But the country that owns her, the United Kingdom, does not really care about us any more or think about us much.

Any New Zealander who goes to the UK to live or work finds this out pretty quickly. They have enough on their plate without having to go the extra mile for us, never mind that tens of thousands of our young men fought and died for British survival when Britain was on its knees.

It is not as if the Queen can do anything for us. She is not one of us. Not really. She is not the bacon on the pig, as it were.

And, as the NZ Herald reminded us this week, the British Royal Family was not able to send, or did not think it worth sending, one of their own to attend the state funeral of our most revered citizen, Sir Edmund Hillary, a man the monarch herself had honoured again and again and whose ascent of Everest just before her Coronation in 1953 seemed timed by the gods to bless her reign.

The Royal Family did not bother. We are too far away, I guess. The head of state is too old for the trip. Her husband may be too gaga. It was mid-winter there at the time and the rest of them might have been too grumpy.

So there is plenty that is no longer right about the Queen of England being our head of state.

At the same time, the system ain't really broke. And if it ain't really broke why would you go through the agonies of fixing it?

It has taken us a decade to get our heads round MMP. It wore us down, the MMP debate, that whole constitutional upheaval, first trying to understand it, then trying to work out how to use it. And what it all boiled down to is that the MPs we elect can head off and team up with anyone once they get into Parliament. But, on the other hand, it has increased the range of representation in the Parliament and that is a good thing.

I am not sure there is an appetite for further constitutional reform at the moment. No one can really be bothered. No one wants another two years of difficult, passionate and probably arcane debate.

As John Key says, there is too much else to attend to.

In any case, why would any prime minister rattle this part of the constitutional cage if there is no clamour for it?

Then there is the problem of who would be president and how that appointment would be filled. Is there really anyone we could consider worthy of such election? Or would the prime minister of the day elevate a crony, an old party hack?

In the end, the nice brilliance of the Crown is that the identity of the person of the monarch is out of our control. It is a divine appointment, an accident of birth, well out of the reach of dirty human hands.

Our acceptance of this defies logic and the modern way of doing things, I know, yet there is something satisfactory about it nevertheless.

Monarchy has served us very well for a very long time.

The ceremonies and the robes and the ribbons and the grand carriages and processions fascinate us.

These all possess magic as well as majesty and much of it goes back hundreds of years, connections with a glorious past.

Given where the majority of our people originated, New Zealanders might be hard-wired to the need for a king or queen. But this need, if it exists, might not survive the present incumbent.

Queen Elizabeth is quite a different creature from the son who will replace her. Elizabeth was a beautiful young woman when she began her reign and, while she is the most photographed woman in the world, she retains a remoteness and mystery.

We really do not know a lot about her or about what she likes and does not like or about how she fills her days. Charles, on the other hand, has been through too many of our own experiences of life to retain any mystery or charisma.

I cannot see anything changing quickly. In the end a choice between monarchy or republicanism for New Zealand might stay in the too hard basket for many years to come.

And yet, the Americans understood the problem with a king right back at the birth of their nation.

It was commonly held that no king across a vast ocean can govern a people on the other side of that ocean.

Of course, in those days, a British king still had a big hand in governing. The modern Queen does very little of that. But in deciding the US constitution, in electing their own executive and in being determined to establish a democratic republic, they had to make sure there was real and effective representation for the citizens.

They had to stand on their own feet as individuals, as communities and as a republic. They had to really take responsibility for themselves.

I wonder whether, in our retention of the British Crown, we have quite made that leap and whether we have quite grown up.

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