Saturday, September 26, 2015

Karl du Fresne: Royalist, no; monarchist, yes

There are royalists and there are monarchists. Some people might dismiss this as an artificial distinction, but for my purposes it’s a useful one.

Royalists love the glamour and pageantry associated with the Queen and her family. They devour every sycophantic magazine article about them and turn out in their thousands to cheer and wave whenever a royal visits New Zealand.

At the risk of sounding condescending, the enthusiasm of royalists is more sentimental than rational. It’s the fairy-tale aspect of royalty that appeals to them.

Monarchists, on the other hand, may be quite indifferent to the rituals and trappings of royalty, yet value the monarchy as a constitutional mechanism. I’m one of the latter. 
I’m more likely to walk across Cook Strait than to join the crowds lining the route of a royal motorcade or buy a souvenir tea towel marking the birth of the latest Windsor. Nonetheless, I believe the monarchy is the best possible form of government for New Zealand. Opinion polls suggest most New Zealanders feel the same.

This is curious when you consider that no one ever voted for the monarchy. It’s a system we’ve inherited largely by historical accident. But the point is, it works. 

That’s kind of accidental too, but good things as well as bad can happen by accident.

All Westminster-style democracies have some sort of titular head over and above the prime minister. Some, such as India, are republics with an elected president, but New Zealand (like Canada and Australia) has the Queen as its head of state.

To many people it’s an affront to democracy that the most powerful figure in our constitution – powerful notionally rather than in reality – is unelected. Furthermore, they regard inherited power and privilege as fundamentally wrong and offensive. And it irritates them even more that our head of state lives 20,000 kilometres away.

I understand all that, but it’s possible to regard inherited power and privilege as objectionable in principle while also acknowledging that in strictly pragmatic terms, the monarchy serves us well.

Those who lobby for New Zealand to become a republic overlook the fact that constitutional monarchy is not a system in which royal edicts are imperiously handed down, but one where elected governments make their own decisions.

This is not Saudi Arabia, where the power of the monarchy is absolute. New Zealand operates as a sovereign, autonomous state – a republic in all but name. As the distinguished jurist Sir Kenneth Keith succinctly put it, “the Queen reigns but the government rules”.

Her function is almost entirely ceremonial. Her “reserve powers”, as they are known, are almost never exercised. Metaphorically speaking, they are kept in a glass case bearing the words “Break in case of emergency”.

This might happen in a rare political crisis, as occurred in Australia when the Governor-General controversially dismissed the Whitlam government in 1975.

The constitutional correctness of that dismissal is still fiercely debated, but in a sense it became academic: a general election was called soon afterwards and Whitlam’s Labour Party was overwhelmingly defeated. So even in a crisis, power is handed back to the people and normal service resumes.

Constitutionally it all seems a rather ramshackle arrangement, functioning as much by convention as by clearly defined rules, but it works.

One crucial reason it works is that the Queen is above politics. It’s to our advantage that she’s 20,000 kilometres away and has no stake in what happens here politically.

Therein lies the big concern about republicanism. Whichever way a New Zealand president were to be elected or appointed, it seems impossible to avoid political influence in the process. Neutrality could not be guaranteed.  

Republicans like to characterise support for the monarchy as a sentimental attachment to an anachronistic institution, but there’s nothing sentimental about valuing the constitutional role of the Crown. It’s a matter of simple pragmatism.

If anyone’s guilty of resorting to sentimental arguments, it’s republicans who invoke fuzzy, feel-good notions of autonomy and nationhood as justification for having our own president. 

We have our nationhood and autonomy already. Or haven’t they noticed?

There’s one important caveat to all of the above. The Queen, who recently became Britain’s longest-serving monarch, has performed her duties impeccably. She is respected as a woman of wisdom, grace and discretion.

But is her son Charles cut from the same cloth? I don’t think so, and neither, it seems, do the British public. The goodwill that the Queen has conscientiously fostered could soon dissolve if her pompous, ineffectual and occasionally petulant son assumed the throne.

That could place the monarchy at risk. While the republic vs. monarchy debate is essentially about rival systems, there’s no point trying to deny that personalities also come into it.

Perhaps by the time the Queen steps down, the time for Charles to take over will have passed and the crown will pass to his more likeable son, William. In fact you can’t help wondering whether that’s her intention.

Karl du Fresne blogs at published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.


Brian said...

Royalists’ v Parliamentarians?
Good summary Karl. As a brash 17yr old on a Bus in central London I spoke out against the “excesses “of our Royalist institution. A large vocal Scotsman remarked “See here Laddie didn’t ye not know just how many folks is employed, and how we depend on em”!
I wonder whether those would be Republicans ever thought, or ever compared the two systems. Do we really want Presidential type elections, especially when we see the year long run up which is now taking place in the USA. Sure it is democracy, but can we afford it either financially or politically?
And as Karl points out, such a titular head of state poses problems even more so with a population of just over 4 million potential nepotisms? It is hard enough as we have seen in this country, to form anything like an independent committee, or indeed individuals who are far enough away from the influence of state political ties; to assume we can have a NZ “elected” totally independent President.
Methinks our Republican friends doth protest too much, the feudal system of old has move away to more powerful influential areas. “For Feudal now read Bureaucratic.” King John eat your heart out; for Magna Carta here in this country needs a great revision. Take a hard look at Alan Duff’s comments in today’s Herald, to realise that apartheid is well and truly alive, and profitable in the Charity business.
After all, even in Great Republic they have their Monarchist Royalists...ever heard of Hollywood and the Oscars?

Unknown said...

Thanks Karl, absolutely spot on differentiation between royalist and monarchist! As to the 20,000 km distance - how fortunate we are to have an absentee landlady who pops in for a house inspection once in a decade or so and then leaves us to our own devices. Imagine if we were cursed with a presidential system populated by tired old political hacks on an exaggerated power trip. New presidential palaces in Auckland and Wellington as well as another in the South Island - almost certainly located near Queenstown for recreational reasons! and then there would be the Praetorian guard to protect their pampered personages and the nuisance to the rest of us as we would be inconvenienced by their travel movements every time they stepped outside their palaces. If it ain't broke don't fix it - what we have is highly effective, unobtrusive and incredibly cheap.
David Jones - Woodend