30 April 2011

A kiwi republican stranded behind enemy lines

Through accident, not design, I found myself in London at the time of the Royal wedding.  As you might expect, torture for a card-carrying republican.  Wall-to-wall coverage. The dissection of every minutiae of Will and Kate’s big day.  Royalistic wallowing at every turn.

But it’s a big civic and tourist occasion , so I had to go and have a look.  The lack of a personal connection or animosity towards the institution was no excuse – after, all I’ve followed other big international civic events like such as Obama’s inauguration and the papal conclave.

Following discussions with loved ones, I left my republican placard at home in the window.  The message was pithy and courteous, while also Kiwi and forthright: “Hei aha! We want a Kiwi Head of State.  Not Kings, Queens, & a fancy wedding.”  However, there were lingering doubts about the appropriateness of protesting at someone else’s wedding (and, also, outrageous uncertainty about whether the Metropolitan Police were going to tolerate Her Majesty’s subjects exercising their democratic right to free expression and protest on this “day of celebration, joy and pageantry for Great Britain”).

I have nothing against the couple personally. I wish them all the best – they’re a sweet couple. It’s just a pity all the monarchial nonsense overshadows two folk declaring their love and commitment to each other.

Anyways, I donned my own symbol of national pride – an All Black jersey – and headed to the centre of town to taste the mood first-hand. Positioned on the edge of Whitehall, across the road from Horse Guards Arch, we joined with the many Brits catching a glimpse of diplomats, heads of state, and the royals as they drove past on the way to the Abbey.  Then a dash to the over-flowing Trafalgar Square, and its huge telly screen, to spy the nuptials.  With enthusiasm waning, a pit-stop for some espresso and nibbles at Peter Gordon’s Kōpāpā – teamed with a live stream of the events via an iPhone and the Royal YouTube channel.  And the day wouldn’t be complete without a street party. Thankfully, I was able to share some solidarity with UK’s Republic group at their “Not the royal wedding" street party at nearby Red Lion Square.

So, did the pomp and ceremony of the big day lead to my Road-to-Damascus conversion? Well, no.  More than anything it has fortified my commitment to the Kiwi republican cause.

For me, the festivities are a testament to the old-fashioned, anachronistic, and extraordinarily British nature of the Royal machine. The monarchy and Sovereign lack the Kiwiness and home-grown values that I think New Zealanders deserve in our symbolic Head of State.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not knocking the day for Britons.  The striking feature of the wedding has been the way it seemed to inspire and bring together the British people. The Union Jack flying.  Local street parties.  The manifestation of British nationhood.  “The best of Britain”, as the television commentators put it.

But, as a Kiwi, it’s an event that left me utterly cold.  That’s the truth – not just some activist spin. Some have accused me of being a Grinch. Actually, I think I’m just a proud Kiwi.

It’s just a shame the wedding had some constitutional significance for New Zealand, and the royal pair are to be our Head of State and consort, because there was very little New Zealandness on show today.

For me, the enduring memories of the day are British ones, not Kiwi ones.  An institution founded on historic birth-right. A hierarchical community. Fawning, forelock-tugging subjects chasing a glimpse of their imperial emperors.  Antique costumes and ceremonies. Bunting bearing the symbol of the Union Jack. Gendered practices. An uneasy sameness in the ruling elite.  A traditional, almost retrospective, society.  All rather quaint.  (Okay, there is a little hyperbole there for effect, but you’ll get my drift.)

In contrast, the values important to me as a New Zealander are things like an egalitarian society, where the potential of each and every one is equally-valued and protected.  A diverse community of Māori, Pākehā, Pacific peoples and others, with the indigenous traditions and ceremonies that generate great fervour.  A relaxed, laid-back attitude. A focus on pragmatic evolution and the potential of what our Kiwi nation can be, in its own time, place and context.

(Before I’m accused of viewing New Zealand through rose-tinted glasses, I know I speak of aspirations which we don’t always achieve.  I admit that.  Here, I can only acknowledge our ambition and record the on-going struggle to realise those values – a path which is, at times, a rocky one.)

But what do I look for on big days – those marking our civic, national or constitutional events?  How do I want to celebrate our nationhood and who we are as a community?

I yearn for the monochromatic silver fern, fluttering in verdant surrounds.  I yearn for the locator beacon of the Southern Cross, whether on our standard or beaming from the heavens. I yearn for a powerful haka, and the emotion of the karanga at a pōwhiri. I yearn for the awkwardness of formality, the flattened vowels of the ceremonial narrative, the ambivalence towards officeholders of state and society. I yearn for scepticism about the role religion in our civic practices.   I yearn, oddly, for a national anthem, sung with uneven gusto, in two languages drawn from our colonial and first nations respectively. I yearn for an acknowledgement of those special and unique things that make us Kiwis.

No wonder today’s great civic occasion left me cold.

Again, don’t take my desire for potent Kiwiness the wrong way.  Yes, there is still a place for acknowledging our British heritage.   But, in my view, as tokens of yesteryear, not our present-day reality.  I’m not one demanding all Anglo-Saxon icons be stripped from the rich tapestry that reflects who were are.  But I object to the way our constitutional arrangements seek to channel and prioritise the historic British values over our local modernity.

At the end of the day, the monarchy can never realise the cultural and civic values I crave as a Kiwi. A Kiwi who is ambitious for, and patriotic about, New Zealand.  For the royals are fundamentally a British institution.  Today’s royal wedding – a foreign fairy-tale –  is a stark reminder of that.

That’s why I want New Zealand to become a republic.  Our Head of State should be chosen by us, from amongst us, and be able to reflect the values of our nation.  It’s time for a Kiwi Head of State.

POSTSCRIPT:
For those who have also had republican sentiments triggered by the royal wedding and are unsure about what a transition to a republic might involve for New Zealand, some quick FAQs:

1. An obvious choice for a home-grown Head of State would be the Governor-General or a person of similar ilk.   The best candidate can be endorsed by a super-majority in Parliament - there is no pressing need for direct election (although that remains a plausible option.)

2.  The figure-head role can be preserved and the present conventions about their powers can be rolled-over without fuss.  At the end of the day, the present Governors-General, in reality, exercise those powers anyway.

3. The Treaty of Waitangi is not upset or undermined by a move to a republic.  The Crown’s Treaty obligations have previously passed from Queen Victoria to various British Kings to Queen Elizabeth in right of Great Britain to Queen Elizabeth in right of New Zealand.  Treaty obligations would automatically pass to the new republican state, and republican legislation would also fortify this.

4.  Becoming a republic does not cast us out of the Commonwealth.  Of the present 54 nations, only 16 countries have Queen Elizabeth as their head of state.  Thirty three are republics.  And 5 are monarchies with a sovereign other than Queen Elizabeth.    

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Course Outline

Lord Justice Lawton in Maxwell v Department of Trade and Industry [1974] 2 All ER 122 said:

"From time to time ... lawyers and judges have tried to define what constitutes fairness. Like defining an elephant, it is not easy to do, although fairness in practice has the elephantine quality of being easy to recognise. As a result of these efforts a word in common usage has acquired the trappings of legalism: 'acting fairly' has become 'acting in accordance with the rules of natural justice', and on occasion has been dressed up with Latin tags. This phrase in my opinion serves no useful purpose and in recent years it has encouraged lawyers to try to put those who hold inquiries into legal straitjackets.... For the purposes of my judgment I intend to ask myself this simple question: did the [decision-maker] act fairly towards the plaintiff?"


This course examines the elephantine concept of fairness in the law, along with other contemporary legal issues.

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