Republican advocates have sometimes argued that the most obvious trigger to debate a new system for appointing New Zealand’s head of state is immediately following the death of the incumbent. Elizabeth II, the argument goes, is so beloved as to be untouchable, making the accession of her less popular and rather odd son the right time to strike. I argue that is wrongheaded on both political and principled grounds.
The Queen’s death will be perhaps the biggest media event in history. This is a person whose career has included theoretically being Sir Winston Churchill’s boss through to – arguably no less illusionary – parachuting out of a helicopter with Daniel Craig to open the 2012 Olympic Games. The coverage of her death will range from saturation treatment on all the major international TV news networks through to New Zealand’s Malvern News (circulation: 5,500) recalling on its front page her visit to Darfield on 18 January 1954. This will go on to her funeral, which will be one of the most watched television broadcasts in history, through to the commemorative books and magazines, and all the way to the coronation of Charles III, or whatever he chooses to call himself.
This is precisely the wrong time to launch a republican debate, and not just for the practical reason that it would be crowded out in the media. The new king will just have lost his mother. Along with his popular sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren, he will be the focal point for reflection on the Queen’s life. Grief-stricken in public, the royal family will illicit enormous public sympathy and greater public support than ever before. The new king’s ‘odd’ beliefs – such as his interest in protecting heritage architecture and his early concern about climate change and other environmental issues – will be repositioned as well ahead of their time. His stated desire to be reincarnated as a tampon and suggestions he employs someone to squeeze his toothpaste will certainly be mentioned, but are hardly out of the ordinary compared with the proclivities of the current head of state of the United States. Expect an upsurge in royal sentimentality and nostalgia against which any republican campaign will fail.
In any case, is this the way in which a new republic or third system of government in New Zealand should be launched: waiting for the death of a popular great-grandmother before publicly demanding to inherit her jewels? Those who have served as New Zealand’s head of state since 1840 have been no more reprehensible than those who have held the role in other countries over the same period. Every country has its equivalent of Parihaka, the pacifistMāori settlement that was sacked by New Zealand government troops in 1881,an atrocity for which the New Zealand Crown formally apologised in 2017.
As head of state, Elizabeth II has arguably been more faithful personally to the spirit of the Crown–Māori partnership under the Treaty of Waitangi than some of the New Zealand heads of government who have served during her reign. If there is to be a divorce between the House of Windsor and Māori and other New Zealanders, is it not better that it be an amicable one where the personal relationship is protected as the legal one ends, rather than one where one party flounces out?
This would argue for a process to be established that is consistent with the Treaty of Waitangi principles of partnership, utmost good faith, and the Crown’s positive obligation to protect the position of Māori under the Treaty. Would such a bilateral process not honour the Treaty, its principles, and the mana (authority, efficacy) of both sides better than one which, while perfectly constitutional and legal, was more unilateral?
Facilitating such a process would require respectful leadership launched at a time when relations between the Crown, Māori, and other New Zealanders were strong, not one launched unilaterally at a moment of grief.
[Mathew Hooton is a New Zealand-based political commentator and columnist. The full article appears in a special edition of The Round Table: Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs on The Crown and Constitutional Reform.]