New Zealand's main opposition party, New Zealand Labour, now openly supports a New Zealand republic. Lewis Holden comments.
I SPOKE AT the New Zealand Labour Party's "fringe" sessions yesterday at their annual conference on a New Zealand republic. The sessions were buzzing and lively, mostly thanks to the comments the night before by party president, and probable future MP Andrew Little. Following a speech by former Wallaby and historian Peter Fitzsimons (who of course Monarchy New Zealand's Chris Barradale has had a go at for being Irish) Little stated that it's time New Zealanders started talking about the issue. It had to happen. The John Key-led National Government decided to roll back a number of the previous Labour government's "republican" changes, and in doing so have emboldened Labour to now openly support a republic - Little's stance is pure realpolitik to distinguish Labour from National, and to take attention away from a errant MP, Chris Carter (who is, ironically, a republican).
At first the Key government went for the low-hanging fruit of Knighthoods and Damehoods. The change didn't require legislation or public consultation, just a letter to the Queen to "approve" the changes. In their defence, they initially rejected restoring the "Right Honourable" title, only for Buckingham Palace to bizarrely confer it on the Prime Minister anyway a few months ago.
Then they invited Prince William (apparently the Queen was invited initially, but declined) to open our Supreme Court, seen widely as a move to confirm the place of William and the monarchy in New Zealand's constitutional life. A visit to Australia also followed to sure up support there. The polls followed suit, with support for the monarchy regaining ground to over 50% once more, and support for a republic falling back to about a third. Now, the Key government is pushing for the restoration of the Queen's Counsel title, despite most other Commonwealth jurisdictions using the title "Senior Counsel". On the positive side of the ledger, the Key government accepted the Law Commissions proposal for the Governor-General to start paying tax like the rest of us, a small step in the right direction.
This isn't the first time National has prompted Labour on constitutional reform. The Privy Council debate is a good analogy: Labour first confirmed its policy of ending appeals to the Privy Council and creating a Supreme Court in 1996, after the National-NZ First government ditched a proposal to make the Court of Appeal our highest court. However, it wasn't until the election of Tony Blair's New Labour in Britain that the issue began to take precedence: Blair promised to reform Britain's chaotic judiciary, centralising the judicial functions of the House of Lords, Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and other miscellaneous courts into a Supreme Court for the United Kingdom. The UK Supreme Court would take the law lords away from the few remaining Commonwealth jurisdictions. With the election of New Zealand Labour in 1999, the abolition of the Privy Council became imminent and was enacted in 2004, the new Supreme Court sitting just before the UK Supreme Court came into existence.
In a number of respects Labour mishandled the process, but the outcome remains in place. The Key Government's Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson, has stated recently that there will be no return to the Privy Council. Finalyson is probably one of Key's most intelligent and forward thinking ministers. He heads Nationals own liberal think-tank, the Blue Libs, which has pushed for the head of state issue to be considered by a yet-to-be formed Constitutional Review. In 2001, Finlayson headed a constitutional policy group that put forward the idea of a referendum on a New Zealand republic once the Queen's reign ends, as well as a referendum on the electoral system and the abolition of the reserved Maori seats. The policies on the electoral system and Maori seats went ahead, the republic policy did not.
This was an opportunity missed for National. By adopting a referendum policy they would've kicked the issue into touch, at least until the end of the Queen's reign. They have instead created a mare's nest for themselves: no matter how they try to spin it, reverting Labour's changes makes them look backward-looking and populist. While in the short-term it is certainly correct that Prince William's visit and the restoration of titles are popular, the public has a short memory. William won't be good looking or a eligible bachelor forever, and like his father (whose visit to Auckland in the mid 60s was also spun as "saving the monarchy") his popularity will fade with age. Looking long-term the outlook is not good. The British monarchy's greatest asset, Queen Elizabeth II, is now 84 and pulling back from public life, as you would expect. Prince Charles' constant clashes with the media wins him little respect, despite the validity of many of the causes he takes up. It's horrible to think an institution can be judged in this way, but that's the realpolik of monarchy.
I'm not a gambling man, but I wouldn't put my money on Phil Goff or Labour to win the 2011 election. However, two of the Key Government's coalition partners, Act and United Future, are unlikely to be returned to parliament, putting the government's prospects in jeopardy. The Government's main asset is Key himself, and his popularity. But Key's popularity with fade, as it does with all politicians as they inevitably disappoint the electorate. A small shift of party votes to Labour in 2011 will set the party up to win in 2014 (especially if the economy sours again), probably led by Andrew Little, a year before the 175th anniversary of the founding of New Zealand in 1840. The Queen will be almost 90 by then, and unlikely to attend.
In absence of Royal tours for the next five years (perhaps newly weds William and Kate might visit us?) it's likely support for a New Zealand republic will start to climb again, potentially breaking the 50% mark in the next five years. A Labour-Greens government with a policy of holding a referendum on a New Zealand republic would then be well placed to implement it. National's staunchest monarchists, senior ministers Murray McCully, Wayne Mapp and John Carter, are likely to move from centre-stage with Key. The door will then be open to younger, more liberal thinkers in tune with New Zealand's multicultural and geopolitical realities. National will have to face this realpolitik eventually. It's a question of when, not if.
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