In many ways, New Zealand seems like a bastion of modernity. The Government’s Treaty with the indigenous Maori has persisted through misinterpretation and skepticism, our electoral systems have few loopholes to exploit, and our leaders are, generally speaking, representative of their constituents. Recently, though, there’s been an elephant in the room, and a well-publicised one at that. The recent wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan has brought increased media attention to the system of monarchy that the UK exists under. It may seem easy for New Zealanders to sit and gaze at the regal spectacle, but the event should be hitting us much closer to home. Our own Crown has emerged from a series of constitutional ambiguities, and the current system is in desperate need of reform.
The New Zealand Monarchy has had a multifarious and sometimes perplexing history. Perhaps the best place to start is with the Treaty of Waitangi. While we often focus on the specific consequences of the signing, in 1840, it was at its heart a ceding of sovereignty. (At least, that’s what the people with most of the guns said). It lead to the formal colonisation of New Zealand. In 1907, New Zealand became a dominion (after declining the generous offer to be part of Australia six years before). The Statute of Westminster was passed by the British Parliament in 1931, and was finally ratified by New Zealand in 1947, giving the country full autonomy and independence from the United Kingdom. All of this was later revamped by the Constitution Act of 1986. Today, New Zealand can largely legislate on its own, and New Zealanders generally consider themselves independent. But all of this came to pass through a complex series of Acts and Statutes, none of which ever censured or totally repealed the central article of faith of the monarchy: the final authority of Her Majesty the Queen.
You might think that, these days, the Queen and her family basically stand around looking dignified. But Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of New Zealand and Her Other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith (not be be confused with Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, who is coincidentally the same person) still enjoys considerable prestige. The Queen consults the Prime Minister when choosing the Governor-General, but ultimately the choice is hers. And the Governor-General is more than a figurehead. All legislation enacted by the democratically elected Parliament must achieve Royal Assent. Parliamentary jockeying for power (Winston Peters’ summer job) is all for nothing if the vice-regal authority doesn’t sign off on the new Government. And what gives the Queen the authority to appoint governmental caretakers (and occasionally drop in herself)? The family she was born into, and of course, the approval of a God that many almost half of all New Zealanders don’t believe in.
So what does this mean to us, the commoners? It’s easy to feel that the Queen can’t do anything, and so we should just ignore this whole issue. In fact, the antidisestablishmentarianists among us might claim that the the monarchy acts as a bulwark against tyranny, without actually exercising its legal authority. But there is an important principle at hand – the principle of independence. We are a pluralistic, democratic, and autonomous nation. Why, then, is our core system of government so homogenous, undemocratic, and shackled to the past? Embracing republicanism would finally put New Zealanders front and centre. We could craft a new system of government, and vote for it ourselves. With a new constitution and a truly democratically elected leader, we could unselfconsciously declare that we were for people of all stripes. And in these times, when bigotry is experiencing something of a resurgence, and our traditional allies are experiencing metamorphoses such as Brexit, we could do with some introspection.
The late David Lange once said, “Do such things matter? They certainly do. We suffer in this country from a lack of emotional focus… New Zealand will become a republic just as Britain will be blurred into Europe.” It’s hard to say how Brexit affects that analogy, but the point stands. New Zealand gets closer to republicanism every day. The monarchy has played a pivotal role in the formation of our democratic systems, but it will soon come time to use those systems to draw this era to a close.