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David Round

The Danger of Constitutional Change

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The death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II  awakened  many thoughts for me, including memories of my own dear departed parents and grandparents. The queen had been there, as parents and grandparents generally are, all my life. I was born in the year of her coronation. Without necessarily ever thinking of her, without her doing anything in particular, she had been, like them, a constant reassuring presence, a sure rock in uncertain times. Whatever respect and affection we had for her, it would also probably be safe to say that our parents and grandparents had had even more. We could imagine how they would have reacted to the news. In thinking of her and what she stood for, I found myself thinking of them; and in thinking of them, thinking of how they saw life, and what they would have thought of how we are living now.

Amid the daily momentous events confronting us, the death of this old lady, inevitable as it obviously was, seems to mark the end of an era.  Our new king was born after the Second World War; the late queen was born and grew up when the empire of the British, although dreadfully weakened by the First World War, was still a mighty and splendid thing. Now, finally, the glory is departed. Can anyone look forward to what lies ahead?

Most of human history has been tumultuous. Our own lives here have been a quiet exception. Even the big things that happened overseas ~ the end of the Cold War, the rise of global terrorism ~ did not really seem to threaten the basic terms of our existence. Now, though, we are very conscious of the fragility of our world.  The climate catastrophes, plagues and food shortages experienced by the rest of the world already have their little counterparts here. Just in the last week the unthinkable threat of the use of nuclear weapons has become dreadfully possible.  Comets were once held to foretell the fall of empires and the death of kings. Now the death of this monarch seems to foretell an age of storms, disasters and revolution. If we shed a tear for her, as many of us did, perhaps even to our own surprise, we are weeping not just for her but for ourselves.

Our institutions, too, are failing, and our great little country, of which we have been so proud, seems to be falling apart. What will become of us? Whom can we rely on? Our politicians are lying, corrupt, and incompetent. Our bureaucracy is overpaid and underperforming. The health system is hopelessly swamped; our education system is a sick joke of illiteracy and indoctrination. Our journalists have been bought by government bribes; half our judges are Treaty activists; the costs of justice are ruinous, and criminals laugh at the law. Our ‘culture’ is shallow and vulgar; we are addicted to electronic gadgets and obsessed with the utter trivialities of sex and ‘celebrity’. Every value that we once held dear is mocked, and revealed to be hypocrisy and self-interest. Even democracy, even the idea of equality before the law ~ ideas which go hand in hand and are the very basis of the New Zealand state ~ are now discovered to be secretly oppressive and racist.  What exactly was it that our parents and grandparents fought and died for? Whatever it was, you will not find much of it now.

Not for the first time, I find myself thinking of W. B Yeats’ prophetic words:

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world;
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremonies of innocence are drowned.
The best lack all conviction while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The chanting vandals, the self-hating intellectuals, the ideologues with an old grudge, dancing to some crazy angry tune, the spiritually stunted and malformed, keen to destroy, incapable of building; full of passionate intensity ~ they are now the captains of the ship.

But it is not yet quite official, because ~ at the very top, there is still a monarch on an ancient throne.

The reasons behind calls for a republic are psychological. They have nothing to do with New Zealand’s independence. Ever since we adopted the Statute of Westminster in 1947 we have been entirely free to make whatever laws we wanted to ~ even to abolish the monarchy, if we wanted to! A constitutional monarchy, such as ours, is a thing of undoubted value, but its value lies chiefly in the power it denies to others. A monarchy where the monarch’s representative must generally follow the advice of his or her Ministers is a republic in all but name. We are completely independent now.

Nor are calls for a republic motivated by any burning commitment to freedom.  I apologise to the few people caught on the wrong side of this generalisation, but I would hazard a guess that most of our would-be republicans are more inclined to favour political correctness, cancel culture, compulsory vaccination and general nanny state bossiness than any monarchists. It was not always so. In the political ferment following the execution of Charles I the citizens who overthrew him were aflame with many ambitious plans to reform the laws. Are there such plans now? Hardly. The abolition of the monarchy will simply set the seal on the new order of things already being imposed on us. Any further plans will simply be for more of what we have too much of already.   

Denis Diderot, writing before the French Revolution, announced that mankind would never be free ‘until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest’. Charming. And yet so prophetic! For what did the French Revolution lead to? The Terror, the suppression of the Vendee (with the death of perhaps a quarter of a million fellow Frenchmen), the destruction of Europe’s ancient order by revolutionary invasion, the military dictatorship of General Bonaparte ~ and millions more deaths  ~  and another century of upheaval. Do away with King Charles, and we will not have freedom, only the reign of Queen Jacinda and her ilk. Come what may, we will always have a Head of State  ~ but which would you prefer to bow to? The manifestation of a thousand years of our people’s history, an example of life long duty and sacred principles ~ or the latest lying political chancer? We never voted for the king, we are told ~ well, you will probably never have voted for the new president either.   

At heart, New Zealand republicanism is little more than an adolescent iconoclastic desire to rebel against Mum and Dad.  

There is a childish envy, too, underlying republicans’ attitudes. What a ghastly job it would actually be, being king. Serious and inescapable responsibilities burden you every day. And you are born to it ~ you have no choice in the matter.  Would you want to do it? To have your whole life, day after day, year after year, mapped out for you ~ the formalities, the protocol ~ the constant biting of your tongue ~ the photographers and journalists tracking your every waking moment . Her Majesty was still receiving ambassadors and politicians and reading state papers until the age of 96!  We would surely hope to have retired well before then. Long before Jesus, a Greek king said that if people knew how much reading and writing of letters there was associated with being a king, they would not stoop to pick up a diadem from the ground.  Yet all  republicans seem to see is ‘privilege’ ~ golden crowns and golden thrones, unfairly bestowed on people who have no better claim to it than an accident of birth. That is so unfair! Tear them down! Take away their gold, the jewels…and…..give them to me!

At a purely economic  level the abolition of the monarchy makes no difference. The monarchy currently costs us nothing to speak of. Our donations to the Commonwealth, a worthy institution, are a mere $3 million a year. The Governor-General, her staff, the maintenance of their historic buildings, running costs and so on, amount to about nine million ~ and those costs would remain under a republic, for there would still be a president and staff, and the same buildings and organisation would continue.  A royal tour, when it occurs, costs one or two million. One or two million? More money is wasted on consultants every day.

What, though, would be the political consequences of republicanism? There will be some. The first rule of ecology, and the first rule of life, is that one can never do only one thing. Every act has consequences and reverberations, some of which take a long time to appear. (Chou En Lai, Mao Tse Tung’s lieutenant, when once asked about the consequences of the French Revolution, replied ‘It is still too early to say’!)

To replace a king with a president would alter the balance of power in our state. After all, how would we choose a president? It would be unthinkable that we merely continue the present system of governments appointing Governors-General. The president, after all, would be the expression of our new free democratic state. He or she would have to be elected by the people, by one method or another. That is the objection to kings, after all ~ that we did not elect them. So there would be elections ~ and rival candidates, with different attitudes ~ and whoever was elected would be supported by some people, but not by others. That is hardly a recipe for unity. Whoever was chosen would have a certain agenda, if only a vague one. After all, he or she was chosen from all the candidates because he or she stood for this and not that. One could not expect any president to be universally respected. And any elected president, simply because he was elected, would be entitled to consider him or herself as being just as much an expression of the popular will as prime minister and cabinet. There will be a rival centre of power. What would happen when a Prime Minister and Cabinet feel it needful to do something a president disapproves of?  

As Oliver Cromwell, that great and noble man, discovered when he sought new constitutional arrangements for England, it is much easier to destroy old institutions than to build new ones. Cromwell’s well-intentioned experiments met with no success, and Charles II and the old order were restored. Monarchy’s path since then has been one of slow evolution. The execution of Charles I, and the revolution against his son James II, firmly established England on the path towards today’s excellent constitutional monarchy. But the principle took long to evolve.  It is hubris indeed for new constitutional engineers to imagine that they can put a new perfect system in place without any problems. There is no perfect system. Everything comes at a cost.

But beyond all this, there is one other enormous and overwhelming reason, never mentioned in the debate, why we must cling to King Charles. The very fact that it is never mentioned is itself significant. It is obvious ~ and yet it is deliberately ignored. The reason is simply this ~ that if the monarchy were to be abolished, that abolition would undoubtedly be the pretext for introducing the ‘principles’ of the Treaty of Waitangi into our fundamental law. The principles, of course, are a blank cheque. The latest announcement from the Waitangi Tribunal is that they require ‘co-governance’ ~ in other words, an end to democracy and racial equality. That not what they meant even a few years ago ~ and for all we know, we may discover a few years down the track that the ‘principles’ require complete Maori control of our country. That is, after all, what some radicals are saying right now.

But whatever the principles are, we can be certain that they would be to our disadvantage ~ and we would have them imposed on us in a new constitutional arrangement. The argument would be that the Treaty ~ in itself, of course, still a legal nullity, and in any case never anything more than a few vague words of general approach ~ was of course entered into by Queen Victoria’s representative. It was a treaty with ‘the Crown’. If we now do away with the Crown , the argument goes, the Treaty itself might somehow vanish, or be weakened ~ and so to avoid that heart-stopping eventuality the Treaty will have to be formally ‘enshrined’, as we enshrine other idols, in a special written constitution, so that it may last even when the ‘Crown’ has disappeared.

If we were to do something as constitutionally significant as abolishing the monarchy, we can be certain that the opportunity would be taken to establish some new written constitutional arrangements for our country. They might not be absolutely necessary ~ as a matter of law, it might be enough simply to prescribe that ‘all references to the monarch are now to be taken as references to the president, and all of the monarch’s powers and duties are to be exercised by the president’. Nevertheless, influential forces would be lobbying strongly for something more than that. Given the current political climate, it would be absolutely inevitable that if the monarchy were abolished, any new constitutional document would have to mention, at least, the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

That is 100%  certain. And once we had the Treaty in our constitution, we would be sunk. No matter how mild the references to the Treaty might be, we can be certain that they would be used, not just by politicians but by politically activist judges in the courts, to impose apartheid on us for ever. Even without such a provision, our previous chief justice, the unlamented Sian Elias, raised the possibility that judges were entitled to ignore Acts of Parliament which did not comply with her own radical interpretation of Treaty principles, and there is no doubt that several decisions of the courts have already done just that.  What a disgraceful claim that was. But whatever we have in a constitution will be interpreted and applied by courts, and against the judgment of the highest of those courts there is no appeal. And even if a parliament far braver than today’s pack of racists, incompetents  and cowards were to say ‘No, that is not what we meant’, the judges would simply reply that parliament was breaching the constitution ~ was behaving unconstitutionally, and illegally ~ in saying that.  Even now, the law is not what parliament says, it is what judges say parliament says. Once we get a written constitution, a higher law which binds parliament itself, there will be no stopping judges as they interpret it as they please. The entire argument for a written constitution, a higher sort of law, is an attempt to remove matters from parliament’s’ authority and hand them over to judges. I have little respect for most of our politicians, as you gather ~ but all the same, I would rather have elected people in charge ~ and after an election or two we might even get some decent ones ~ than hand our entire future over to a tiny handful of unelected woke  racehorse-owning lawyers in the Supreme Court.   

There might indeed even be more in any new constitution. But can we believe that any new constitution we might acquire would be, as in Cromwell’s time, an opportunity for a new start and new just legal and social arrangements? For ending poverty and inequality, making the law available to all, attempting, in whatever way, to make our country a better and finer place? Dream on. At present, any new constitution would merely be the entrenchment of the intellectually bankrupt,  politically correct,  deeply intolerant and racist current establishment.

‘Monarchy’ and ‘Republic’ are but the battle cries. The battle is over what New Zealand is going to look like; what sort of country, in fact, it is going to be. The battle lines are being drawn. As in the English Civil War, when a hundred slightly different shades of support and sympathy for King and Parliament were forced by circumstances to coalesce into support for one side or the other, sometimes surprising alliances are being formed between different shades of opinion that realise that they have more to lose than to gain from standing alone.

Who is going to run our country? Them? Or us?

God save the King. God defend New Zealand. God save us all.