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Howard's End: Constitutional Monarchy Is Best

As the Queen arrives in New Zealand and the Prime Minister has disappeared over the horizon, it is time to reflect that it's a very healthy democracy that does not give too much attention to its Head of State. History shows that things start to go bad when attention becomes necessary. Maree Howard writes.

For the most part, most ordinary New Zealander's go through life without a great deal of thought about the Crown. The Queen, the Queen Mother and other members of the Royal Family would visit every now and again. They are such familiar figures that we are fascinated to observe them.

But for most of our days we get by giving little thought to the constitutional arrangements that the Queen symbolises. That's healthy in a democracy.

In the mid-1960's the Commonwealth seemed to be buffeted from crisis to crisis. Many commentators predicted the end of the Commonwealth and the finish of its global perspective. It didn't happen.

The links between the Crown and New Zealand - which plays some part in the bonds of the Commonwealth of nations - has evolved over time, adjusting to New Zealand's changing circumstances and developing an increasingly New Zealand identity as New Zealand has developed as a nation.

But now, there are calls for a complete breakaway and the republican debate has notched up a peg or two.

Many New Zealanders take their Oath of Allegiance very seriously. They have taken an oath to the Queen of New Zealand established as our Head of State through constitutional arrangements we Kiwi's designed, adopted and decided to keep as recently as 1986 when the Parliament enacted the Constitution Act.

Do these oaths mean nothing? Is loyalty such a plaything of passing fad or fancy? Does the reciprocal oath which the Queen took at her Coronation fifty years ago, to serve the people of New Zealand, weigh as lightly on Her conscience. I doubt it.

Of course, oaths can be released. But at least in the history of English speaking people, the Oath of Allegiance has usually been taken with a measure of seriousness. Not only are we the beneficiaries of the great constitutional struggles of Great Britain, we inherit the ideas of freedom that comes from the English language. The notions of individual dignity and worth that come from the English common law are timeless.

It has not easily been accomplished because it is, for many, a thing of the heart. It is a thing of spirit. It is a thing that runs deep and about which people feel.

A republic is something which transcends political parties. I also believe it transcends ethnicity. It is not just another issue for party strife. This is an issue about the very loyalty of a country and its people.

It is an issue to be handled delicately - not bullied forward to a bare 50.1% of votes. Sentiments of the spirit are rarely susceptible to an exclusively logical treatment.

New Zealander's have a considerable respect and affection for the Queen.

And why should we not have such respect for our Head of State who has seen through such a long parade of Prime Ministers in her fifty years of service. Here is the continuous, historical, permanent symbol of our constitutional form of government.

In an uncertain time when so much is changing, there is a value in the symbolism of such permanence. It is a value that we should not lightly throw away. Before we do so, we should be very sure that we have something better, but just as safe, to put in its place.

Heady though the call for a republic might be, it is not an occasion for needless change to our constitutional arrangements or to meet someone else's agenda.

To them I say: Grow Up! Look about you and see the curses of nationalism in this world.

The fact is our system works rather well. When you look around the world at the countries which seem the most stable, liberal in their laws and tolerant of diverse opinions, overwhelmingly these countries tend to be constitutional monarchies.

The Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Spain, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and, of course, New Zealand.

Why should this be so? It cannot be entire coincidence that so many members of the OECD are constitutional monarchies.

The advanced, democratic, rule of law societies with the best economic records tend to be constitutional monarchies, although the world is full of countless republics which do not make the grade and have corruption as high as the President. Is this just chance?

It might be said that New Zealand would remain stable and tolerant as a republic, with its own local Head of State. So indeed it might. But before we change we have to weigh up the risks.

Having as a Head of State a person chosen by accident of birth means that politicians cannot aspire to the number one job. In this sense, the Queen of New Zealand keeps out of the top job the pushing and shoving types who are vitally necessary for our democracy, but who do not always engender universal respect, affection or trust.

The monarch is not ever present whereas the President would be. Not for us the stretched limo and the First Lady or Man. With an ever-present republican Head of State, we would surely go down the road of pretension.

Anyone who doubts that need only look at South Africa. The President was soon unsatisfied with that title and quickly became State President. Very soon after he sprouted an orange sash, which is now worn everywhere important. Meanwhile, people starve.

If we elect a President you give him or her legitimacy which may imperil the stability of our Parliamentary democracy. The President may claim a mandate and a legitimacy for that office. Will the President sack the Parliament or will the Parliament sack the President? Look what happened in Pakistan and even at the strife in Russia.

Ministers and public servants are all temporary under the Crown. That involves a self-conception which puts a brake on delusions of grandeur or a possible coup de'etat. The constitutional monarchy is a symbolic assurance against the brutal assertion of oppressive power.

To the suggestion that we must have in New Zealand a home-grown President and that the Queen is a foreigner, I say: Tell that again to the Scots, and the Welsh and the Northern Irish and all the other people who accept the Queen as their Head of State. In an internationalist age we should regard this common link as a bonus and reject the call back into the bosom of South Pacific nationalism. It's so passé.

To the complaint that the Queen is not, when overseas, seen as the representative of New Zealand, the Prime Minster is and should be, the main representative of New Zealand. Our system is Parliamentary - that means a Prime Minister. Let him or her be New Zealand's representative overseas.

And in the event that people overseas care the slightest about our constitutional arrangements let them mind their own business. Just as we mind ours in relation to their constitutions.

To those that say the Queen is not always among us, I say: This is exactly the positive advantage of our system. Basically, we have the perfect blend of monarchy and republic. The people have the ultimate say. Great power is divided as befits a republic. But the Crown as a symbol of continuity is there.

The Queen comes when she is invited. But not too rarely or too often. We basically get by without a Head of State and the Governor General doing their modest functions which we think are necessary for us.

To the extent that a President has power and legitimacy, the Prime Minister had better watch out. For we then run the risk of tension at the top. At the moment there is no such risk. The Prime Minister is the undisputed top dog in power. But he or she is deprived of the symbols of the ultimate power and this is to remind him or her of the temporary hold enjoyed upon it.

I might say, without giving offence, that this is a reminder which some, at least, of the highest office in recent years have needed, occasionally, to receive.

To the suggestion that ethnic people in New Zealand have no affinity with the Queen of New Zealand, I would say they probably think as little about her as those of Anglo-Celtic stock. It is likely the system of stable democracy and parliamentary government that is, to them, one of the chief attractions of this country.

A system which puts the brakes on extremes and keeps all in their respective place has rational advantages which may not be fully understood, but is instinctively felt.

To the assertion that a republic is inevitable and that we should therefore lie back and accept it, I would answer in the words of John Maynard Keynes:

"The inevitable never happens. It is the unexpected always."

We have so many other real challenges in New Zealand, so why divide us unnecessarily, as divide us you will upon the one feature of our constitutional arrangements that shows no urgent need of change.

Lead us instead to an attack on the problems of the long-term unemployed.

Lead us to the urgent needs of our indigenous population.

Lead us to the urgent needs of our environment.

Lead us to a new relationship with our Asian and Pacific neighbours.

Lead us to better health services, educational opportunities and employment prospects for our people.

Lead us to a better understanding of the causes of drug dependence and a more effective response to HIV/AIDS.

Lead us to a more tolerant society, respectful of minorities and determined to break the stereotypes which have limited women and other disadvantaged groups.

Lead us, if you will, to an honest and open debate about our constitutional arrangements when all cards are on the table and the fundamental character of the compact can, if necessary, be re-negotiated from scratch.

In the meantime, leave our constitutional arrangements, the flag and our Queen alone. Because we, ordinary New Zealanders, rather like all of them. They are matters of our spirit.


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