John Key thinks our colonial flag is an outdated symbol that needs replacing. So why is our relationship with the Monarchy any different?

While John Key has obviously decided that a change to the New Zealand flag is worth burning political capital on, he's not interested in altering anything more fundamental. Here's what the Herald reports Key as saying:

Mr Key made it clear changing the flag was his limit as far as a nudge toward republicanism went, describing himself as "the biggest constitutional monarchist you'll meet".

"I believe in the Queen as head of state and I don't think ... having a president does anything for us other than being a very expensive exercise, one that wouldn't work terribly well."

Now, there may be some reasons for wanting to retain the Queen (or, rather, whomever happens to be sitting upon the UK throne at any given time) as our head of state. Tradition, or the like. Maybe retaining constitutional links with the UK gives us an extra visibility in that market (think of all the media coverage of Prince George's trip Down Under!) But Key's claim that switching to a "president" somehow would cost to much and deliver too little strikes me as very poorly thought through.

First of all, becoming a "republic" doesn't entail making our head of state a "president". We could call our head of state whatever we want. We could continue to call her/him "governor general", if traditional form is thought important. Or we could mark our bi-cultural status and call her/him "ariki tapairu" or "ariki tauaroa". Or we could call her or him "symbolic figurehead", if we want to be literal about it.

Second, this idea that a new head of state would somehow involve extra costs strikes me as plain nonsense. It's not like we'd have to start paying for someone to do a new job. Sure, Queen Liz doesn't cost us anything (unless she or her brood turn up for a visit), but we've already got someone, Jerry Mateparae, on the public payroll doing the effective job of Head of State. So there'd be no extra personnel suddenly needed.

But maybe Key means that the process of changing to a republic would be too costly. Well, really? Sure, it would take a referendum to achieve - but Key's more than happy to have two referendums on the just as (un)important question of what flag do we fly, not to mention the silly referendum on MMP he insisted on having back in 2011. Aside from that one-off expense, what other costs would there really be in making the change?

Or maybe Key means that the process of choosing who would be the new head of state would be too costly. Which would mean that he thinks any new head of state would have to be elected by the people, necessitating a whole round of extra balloting every three? Five? Seven? years.

However, why directly elect our new head of state? That seems to me a very silly thing to do, given that they largely fulfill a ceremonial and symbolic role. Indeed, directly electing him or her carries real risks of creating conflicting mandates, as well as politicising the role in a way that we've avoided (so far) in New Zealand. So I'd favour any head of state in a republican NZ being appointed by vote of the House of Representatives on the recommendation of the Government. Which would cost next-to-nothing. 

Which brings us to the third and final point. Key thinks that "having a [new head of state] ... wouldn't work terribly well." But why not? Think about how our "head of state" works at the moment. The British work out who is going to be their King/Queen. We then adopt that choice automatically as our King/Queen. The Government then tells that King/Queen who they want to act as the monarch's representative in NZ and do virtually all the actual ceremonial work of the Head of State. The King/Queen automatically makes the appointment, and everything ticks along nicely.

Now, imagine a world in which the Head of State retains the exact same constitutional role as at present. But instead of the NZ Government asking whomever happens to have won a birth lottery to appoint a local person to do all the work, instead the NZ Government asks the House of Representatives to appoint a person to act as Head of State (with the House having to agree to that choice by some supermajority, so as to ensure broad support for the individual nominated). When the House gives its agreement, then everything ticks along just as before.

Well, you may say, if that's all that is involved, why bother? It's a purely symbolic change. To which I say, quite right. It's symbolic in the same way as the kind of flag we use to identify us as a nation is symbolic.

So, does that symbol "represent the thinking by and about a young country moving from the 1800s to the 1900s"? And has "our relationship to the rest of the world has changed over time?"

And do you "think, and believe many New Zealanders feel the same, that [the monarchy] captures a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed"?

Because if the flag is an outdated and embarrassing anachronism, what about being ruled by someone else's monarch?

Comments (7)

by Alan Johnstone on February 07, 2015
Alan Johnstone

All entirely true, the GC is de-facto head of state now. It'd cost nothing to make it formal.

However isn't  the real question, why do our mainstream media let John Key get away with talking such blatant crap entirely unchallenged ?

by Lee Churchman on February 07, 2015
Lee Churchman

We could continue to call her/him "governor general"

Has to be "Grand Poobah".

But, more seriously, why have one at all? You could write most of the functions of a GG into law. If we absolutely have to have something for a prospective prime minister to seek permission to form a government from, one of those waving cat statues they sell in Asian thrift stores would suffice.

by Nick Gibbs on February 08, 2015
Nick Gibbs

And with the speed of computers it would take less than 10 mins to find and replace all references to "Crown/Governor General" with "Republic/Grand Poobah" in our current laws. 

by Siena Denton on February 08, 2015
Siena Denton

Yes John Key believes in an outdated monarchist UK Queen who purrs down the phone instead of yapping like a corgi.

As for her symbolic butler GG Mateparae who engaged in a "rather risque joke"

"...saying he recalled Winston Churchill's advice that "a speech should be like a woman's skirt - long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep interest."

Some how I think only Sir Winston Churchill had the knack to make a woman laugh without taking offence however, the GG afraid not...Sounds like a dirty old man who perves at young skirts.

 If I seem anti-colonialism to you, then yes I am.

Best to be honest and straightforward

Ahau he wahine tuturu Mana Māori

Ko tenei whenua te ingoa tuturu ko Aotearoa anake!

Ko nga hapu Māori katoa ā nga uri me nga rangatira o tenei whenua katoa kei konei

I don't give a damn about a piece of rag on a pole

by Rich on February 09, 2015

Why not just make the PM Head of State? Why do we need one person who can make decisions and another to mouth platitudes and schmooze notables (who, if their visit is actually useful, probably need to talk to the organ grinder, not the monkey)?

That would save a small amount of money, as well as giving use a big building in Newtown that could be used for some sort of useful public function.

by Wayne Mapp on February 10, 2015
Wayne Mapp

The real reason is that there is just no public mood for a change. And the PM knows that.

So Andrew, you are right on all the factual assumptions. Its just that the New Zealand public are not interested.

It is actually surprising support for the monarchy is so strong (around 70% according to polls), but that is how it is.

The flag on the other hand is and has been more debatable.

Whatever you might say about the PM, it is pretty hard to argue that he is not in touch with popular sentiment, in part instinctively and in part because he takes the trouble to know.

by Andrew Geddis on February 13, 2015
Andrew Geddis

Whatever you might say about the PM, it is pretty hard to argue that he is not in touch with popular sentiment, in part instinctively and in part because he takes the trouble to know.

Accepted that the public don't seem to care overly much about becoming a republic (and, to be honest, I don't either!) But I'm not sure you're right in implying that the PM is simply reflecting public opinion by raising the flag issue. Take this ResearchNZ poll, which found:

Over time there has been little change in the proportion of respondents agreeing that New Zealand should adopt a new flag (19 percent in 2011 and between 18 and 22 percent in the 2014 measures).

So on the flag issue, I actually think Key is trying to lead the debate/move the public to accept change.That's fine - it's what political leadership is about - but I'm just not convinced by his reasons for why it's worth doing for the flag, but a mistake for the monarchy!

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