Yesterday’s traditional Proclamation of the new King Charles III at Parliament may be the last time we see that ceremony.
By the time of the next Proclamation of a King, New Zealand may have decided to become a republic.
As the debate begins about becoming a republic, former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer says we are already a “disguised republic.”
That is because the Sovereign has in practical terms, no real power.
Another former Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, says it is now only a matter of time before New Zealand becomes a republic.
The reality, as Palmer says, is that the British monarch has no real power in New Zealand; it is all devolved to the Governor General.
And even then, the Governor General can do no more than carry out the instructions of the elected government.
That may be the case, but the ceremonies at Parliament yesterday to proclaim Charles as King of New Zealand derived almost entirely from British traditions.
And that raises questions about how Maori fit into the Constitution and more particularly, how they might fit into a republic.
But yesterday was a serious affair combining its pageantry with mourning exemplified by all of the Government participants wearing black.
Most of the Cabinet (except for those like Damien O’Connor travelling overseas) assembled in the Cabinet room as the Executive Council to witness the signing of the Proclamation.
All wore black face masks and after both Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Governor General Dame Cindy Kiro had signed the Proclamation they moved to Parliament’s forecourt.
The “great and the good” of former Prime Ministers, top public servants, military and others who assembled out the front of Parliament to witness the reading of the Proclamation were also in black.
The master of ceremonies on the forecourt, so to speak, was Phillip O’Shea, the “New Zealand Herald Extraordinary”, who was wearing an array of medals and carried a short gold-tipped staff as he led the Prime Minister and the Governor General and other dignitaries down Parliament’s steps to the dais.
But yesterday’s ceremony was a modest affair compared with the Proclamation of the late Queen’s reign in 1952, when the New Zealand Press Association reported that over 8000 thronged Parliament’s grounds for the ceremony.
Yesterday the crowd numbered only two or three hundred.
Palmer told POLITIK that opinion on the monarchy and the debate over whether New Zealand should be a republic tended to wax and wane.
“A lot of people don’t really understand a conception of what a head of state is for or how you would structure that office,” he said.
He said that monarchy was a mediaeval concept and monarchs had complete power.
“But New Zealand was an imperial invention of the Imperial Parliament at Westminster, and we had colonialism, and then we had kind of quasi colonialism.
“If you’re going to have a separate nation with its own identity and its own ethos, you really have to have a head of state here, not somewhere else.”
Palmer argues that the Governor General, as the representative of the monarch, is obliged to act on the advice of the Government.
“From a constitutional point of view, it’s actually relatively easy to change the head of state,” he said.
But Palmer believes that what would be needed first would be some sort of Royal Commission that would examine all of New Zealand’s legislation to see how it would be affected by the change.
“The question then becomes what sort of head of state do you want instead.”
Here Palmer and another former Prime Minister who also supports New Zealand becoming a republic, Jim Bolger, agree that a republican head of state should not have executive powers like an American President but should instead simply act on the advice of the Government of the day.
Bolger is opposed to the idea of a President being popularly elected as the Irish President is because that would establish a potentially rival power centre away from the Parliament.
Bolger’s whole emphasis would be on limiting the ability of the head of State of the Republic to acquire political power.
The Government of the day would nominate a Governor General in consultation with the Opposition.
“Andthere should be one single fixed term so that they’re not tempted to use the position to try and get a second term,” he told POLITIK.
Bolger’s Deputy Prime Minister, Sir Don McKinnon, was secretary general of the Commonwealth between 2000 and 2008 and had the opportunity to get to know Queen Elizabeth with his regular meetings with her while at the same time he got a close-up view of how the countries of the Commonwealth related to her.
Whilst not such an overt republican as Bolger or Palmer, he had supported the 1990 -99 National Government’s attempts to abolish knighthoods and other royal honours. Though the Government agreed to establish New Zealand honours, the National caucus insisted on retaining knighthoods.
(His own Knighthood is a British one for his role as Commonwealth Secretary General).
But the experience at the Commonwealth and perhaps the experience of losing the battle over knighthoods has left him sceptical that either Canada, Australia or New Zealand would likely become a republic soon.
Indeed, the leader of his old party, Christopher Luxon, is not enthusiastic about New Zealand becoming a republic.
“I can’t see any justification for any change to our constitutional arrangements, and I don’t think the NZ people see it at this point either,” he told Newshub’s Nation on Saturday.
McKinnon said that Canada would find it difficult o become a republic because of the tensions between the Anglophone and French communities, while Australia would require all states to agree, and one, possibly Queensland, might find that more difficult than others.
And he said New Zealand and Australia had opposed the Commonwealth Secretary-General having wide general powers.
“The first Secretary General, Arnold Smith, forced the hand that got the backing of particularly the newer Commonwealth countries that he had to be treated as an equal by leaders,” he told POLITIK.
“New Zealand sided with the Brits in that case that the secretary general should be more secretary and less general.
“New Zealand and Australia suddenly didn’t want a whole bunch of countries from Africa being treated as having equal access to the UK.
“They wanted that special relationship that they’d had for the previous 60 to 80 years.”
But that emotional pull of “mother England” raises another more complicated question.
Obviously, Maori don’t share the emotional connection with Britain that many Pakeha do.
But Maori views on royalty are mixed.
Some see the British sovereign as a direct descendant of Queen Victoria and, therefore, the ultimate partner to the Treaty of Waitangi.
But Maori Development Minister, Willie Jackson, said it was probably wrong to say that Maori were united in their mourning for the Queen.
“I think it’s fair to remember the Maori them will be divided over this in terms of going forward, the place of the treaty, how do we entrench the treaty?”
Palmer believed dealing with the Treaty under a republic would be relatively easy.
“The fact that you get a new head of state wouldn’t affect at all the obligations in relation to the treaty,” he said.
“I know some people think it would, but it wouldn’t.
“I just think that you could entrench the Treaty.
“I tried to do that in the Bill of Rights Act.
“That was passed in 1990, but there was quite a lot of opposition to that, and we had to drop that feature of the New Zealand Rights Act when it was passed.”
McKinnon believes Maori would not agree to a republic without seeking concessions from the Government.
“Maori signed the treaty with the British Crown, and I would think there’d be a significant number of Maori who say, well, we’re not prepared to give up being a realm until we see far more equality within New Zealand today,” he said.
When George the Sixth ascended the throne in 1936, it was felt necessary to emphasise the “equality” of Pakeha and Maori citizens in the Proclamation.
It said the Governor General and Executive Council had been assisted in making the Proclamation by “members of both Houses of the General Assembly, Judges and Magistrates, Ministers of Religion, Mayors, Chairmen and Members of Local Bodies, and numerous other representative European and Maori citizens.”
NZPA reported that the phrase “Maori and European” was used because, at that time, it was felt necessary to emphasise the equality of the Maori with the Europeans.
But the phrase was dropped in 1952 when Elizabeth the Second was proclaimed Queen.
Instead, Sir Eruera Tirikatene was one of the signatories to the Proclamation as “the senior Maori member of the House of Representatives as the representative of the Maori race.”
The Proclamation yesterday used the 1952 language and was also signed and read in Te Reo.
The changes in the Proclamation are clear evidence of New Zealand’s constantly evolving Constitutional arrangements.
Palmer believes that the challenge in establishing a Head of State for a Republic would be to maintain the ability of the system to evolve and to replicate the neutrality that the Sovereign displays.
“We would not want this office to become a subject of party political capture,” he said.
“Because you would lose the great contribution that we had where the Sovereign under current constitutional arrangements is actually very neutral and doesn’t have very much power because he must act on the advice of his ministers who are elected.”
The great 19th-century British Constitutional theorist, Walter Bagehot, wrote that there were two parts to the British Constitution; “first, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population—the dignified parts” and the efficient parts—those by which it, in fact, works and rules.”
Whether a country has a sovereign or a president is part of the “dignified” part of the Constitution.
And Bagehot said that was what gave a Constitution force.
So whoever is head of state may, as Palmer points out, have only a symbolic role, but they are nevertheless fundamental to the definition of the state itself.
That is why becoming a republic, though it would seem inevitable, is likely to be a fraught process.