On the monarchy, and Keith Locke’s mechanism for replacing it

Prince William And The Governor General Anand Satyanand. Photography by Woolf – www.woolf.co.nz
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Prince William And The Governor General Anand Satyanand.
Photography by Woolf – www.woolf.co.nz

Flexibility is an essential feature of the modern monarchy. How ironic that Prince William, as the Queen’s emissary, should be chosen to open the new Supreme Court in Wellington this morning, a building that embodies New Zealand’s decision to scrap the Privy Council in London as our final court of appeal. Thus, the modern monarchy adapts, and survives for a little while longer – even as the substantive reasons for retaining the institution quietly twinkle out, one by one.

Not that complete abolition will happen anytime soon. The country’s transition towards republicanism may have a certain inevitability about it, but inertia has set in about how the final rites will be carried out. It looks like being a long goodbye. The only republican gesture currently on the books at Parliament is Green MP Keith Locke’s Head of State Referenda Bill, which is likely to get its first (and only?) reading in March.

The contents of Locke’s Bill propose a possible two-stage process. Voters would be faced with three options. One, they could always choose to retain the status quo, and keep the British monarch as our head of state. Two, voters could endorse letting a 75% vote in Parliament appoint a president, from a shortlist approved by the public – which as Lewis Holden has pointed out in his excellent analysis of the Bill,
is pretty much how the Germans currently go about selecting their president. Thirdly, voters could choose to elect the president by a direct public vote carried out via the Single Transferable Vote method, much as the Irish currently do. If no option wins 50% of the vote after the ballots are cast in the first referendum, the two strongest contenders would go forward to a second referendum, until a 50% victor emerges.

Is the country willing to contemplate such a process just yet? Certainly, while there is little enthusiasm for keeping the monarch as our head of state, there is probably even less enthusiasm for politicizing the office. If anything, modern politicians have less credibility – and are losing what little cred they have, even faster – than the monarchy. Unfortunately, the argument against having a distant, out of touch elite sitting at the apex of our democracy cuts both ways, given that many people see the current crop of politicians as being just as aloof and out of touch. If anything, the monarchy is probably seen as a marginally more benign concentration of power.

In other words, scrapping the monarchy is a step towards independence that many can applaud, but any successful campaign to do so has to confront the valid suspicions about what comes next. The prospect of an elected or appointed head of state – almost certainly a retired judge, or a former prime minister – is enough to give anyone pause, before leaping from the frying pan of the monarchy into the fire of a republic.

Still, democracy is always messy, and somewhat imperfect. At least, if we were to go down the road outlined in Locke’s Bill we would – for better or worse – be getting the president that we deserve. In future, our head of state would have emerged from the hoopla of an overt presidential campaign, instead of being imposed on us by the genetic accidents of the Windsor family, and its dysfunctional track record of family life. Even monarchjsts can be re-assured that the changes Locke is proposing would be minimal. Yes, under his Bill’s provisions the monarchy could end up being abolished. Yet the new ‘president’ would have virtually the same, largely ceremonial powers as the current governor-general. New Zealand would not be getting the sort of presidency that exists say, in France.

Even so, things would not be utterly identical to the old order. While the Bill doesn’t propose to amend the current powers of the office of head of state, the expression of those powers could play out somewhat differently. In practice, an elected president would have greater room to use the reserve powers and dismiss a prime minister because unlike now – where the mandate comes from the prime minister (and executive ) who appointed the governor-general, the mandate in future would come from Parliament, or directly from the public.

Logically, that should give the office holder greater latitude, within the rare but contentious area of the reserve powers, to use those powers. In all likelihood though, the reserve powers would continue to be exercised only in the kind of extreme crisis situations imaginable for a governor-general – where say, the Prime Minister has lost the confidence of Parliament, as happened so controversially in Australia during the 1970s when governor-general Sir John Kerr sacked Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, appointed a caretaker and called fresh elections. There is an even greyer area of the reserve powers, wherein the head of state could arguably refuse assent to a Bill that for example, sought to abolish democracy. Still, these are largely untested waters, even under the current system.

Arguably, we are already gone halfway down the road outlined by the Locke Bill. For decades, our governors-general have been New Zealanders appointed by the prime minister of the day. The system has survived what were widely seen as party political appointments – Sir Keith Holyoake on one hand, Dame Cath Tizard on the other. To that extent, Locke’s Bill would essentially replace the monarch without significantly changing the constitutional situation.

Reportedly, the Bill needs just a couple of votes from National or Act to survive its first reading, and to proceed to the hearing of public submissions before a select committee. It would be a shame if petty politicking stopped it at the first hurdle. Right now, Locke’s Bill is the only instrument that we have for fostering a public debate about the relative merits of the monarchy and republicanism. It would therefore be highly appropriate for the Prime Minister to lead from the front, and throw his weight behind Locke’s initiative.

After all, it was Key who almost single-handedly brought back the feudal titles or “Sir” and “Dame.” It would now be fitting for the PM to play the other card, and demonstrate his confidence in the ability of Parliament, and the public at large, to decide the future role of the monarchy for themselves. In fact, an all-party vote in Parliament to send the Bill to select committee would be one small sign of the political maturity that the republican cause exists to promote.

Lovely Bones part two

Last week, I reported that in an effort to recoup their troubled $100 million plus investment in The Lovely Bones, Paramount was re-positioning it as a girlie flick for teens, in the style of the Twilight franchise. The ad campaign seems to be working. In its first weekend on national release in the US, the film made a respectable recovery to a $17.1 million gross, landing it in third place at the box office behind Avatar and the new Denzel Washington movie. Reportedly, nearly 75 % of the US audience for The Lovely Bones was female, and 40 per cent were under 20.


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