Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Republicanism and royals

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Prince William and Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Prince William and Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Geoff Sloan

New Zealand's 'inevitable' shift towards becoming a republic seems to be the major political debate to emerge out of the current royal tour.

Some will see it as undiplomatic that this fresh debate has been sparked while 'the Cambridges' are guests in New Zealand. For instance, leader of the Opposition David Cunliffe has been reported today as saying Republican talk 'not appropriate' right now.

However you can't take the politics out of a royal tour, and it seems that there's an array of New Zealanders who want to discuss the future constitutional arrangements of the country. One is former National Party deputy PM Don McKinnon, who gave a 7-minute Q+A interview in the weekend arguing that New Zealand is 'inching toward a republic'.

McKinnon is in line with Prime Minister John Key, who has in the past said the shift is 'inevitable'. Staunch republican David Farrar points out that 'This is significant coming from the former Commonwealth Secretary-General.

Especially that four of the remaining 16 countries are planning to become republics when the Queen dies. Arguably that is a sensible time for NZ to do the same' - see: McKinnon says NZ republic is inevitable.

Republicanism on the rise?

David Farrar's polling company Curia has just released opinion poll results on the issue of republicanism, which are now being reported around the globe by a media interested in New Zealand's apparent increasing desire to dispense with the monarchy - for the details of the poll and some reaction see Blake Crayton-Brown's William may not be Kiwi king: pollster. It seems that the country is currently evenly split over becoming a republic, but younger people are much more strongly in favour. As blogger No Right Turn says, this seems to mean that 'the supporters of monarchy will die off quietly just as the supporters of religion are doing' - see: The inevitable republic.

Public indifference to the current royal tour is further evidence for some that republicanism is on the rise, or at least that New Zealanders aren't so enthusiastic about the royals anymore. For example, Brian Rudman says today that 'Despite the pre-tour media hype, my fellow citizens haven't gone all monarchist on me. The sudden presentation of a 9-month-old baby as our future king circa 2060-plus didn't suddenly have Wellingtonians dropping to one knee in the rain-swept streets, tugging their forelocks as the cavalcade drove past' - see: Quick snip and we're a republic. Rudman argues that 'support for the status quo is rapidly dying out'.

It's the logistics of the shift to republicanism that is the 'stumbling block' according to Rudman. He argues in favour of choosing simplicity in New Zealand's shift towards republicanism: 'The sensible alternative is to change very little. Select a governor-general/president as we do now, and just cut the umbilical cord to Buckingham Palace, along with the pretence that he or she represents the British monarch'.

Alternatives to this model are surveyed in a Nelson Mail editorial A post-royal NZ brings hard calls. It refers to three models: 'soft republicanism'; 'full republicanism', or a third option of having 'no head of state'.

Opposition to the Royal visit

For further evidence that the royals might be on their way out, it's worth looking at some of the opposition to the current tour. Interestingly, it's the chief political reporter of Newstalk ZB, Felix Marwick, who has penned the strongest opinion piece against the tour, denouncing it as 'A colossal waste of time, energy, and money'. His lack of enthusiasm for having to cover the tour for his radio network is stark: 'the thought of having to follow the scions of aristocratic privilege around the country as they partake in such earth shattering events as riding in jet boats, visiting a police college, and yachting on Auckland harbour, bores me to tears' - see: Royal tour a complete waste.

Marwick also puts his arguments against royalty: 'But what, in the quantum of human affairs do they contribute to New Zealand other than represent a vestigial tie to our colonial past. Bar symbolism this visit is an expensive waste of time, has limited news value, and does little, if anything, for the country. My ancestors, and I know I'm not alone in this, came to New Zealand to get away from Britain's oppressive class system. To escape the poverty trap that constrained those who were not of the right social class. So why are we celebrating and endorsing the royals when they represent the very system our great great grand parents escaped from?'.

In the blogosphere similar sentiments can be found. Leftwing blogger Steven Cowan connects the royal trip with another current political issue - the Government's clampdown on beneficiaries going on holidays - saying 'Those two well-known state beneficiaries Willie and Kate Windsor have left old Blighty to holiday in New Zealand, courtesy of the New Zealand taxpayer' - see: The Queen is dead.

But, by and large, there is a lack of visible opposition to the Cambridges' tour. Philip Matthews has written a very good feature on the opposition to the tour, but actually points to the largely indifferent stance of New Zealanders: 'you might expect some organised opposition. Not protests or riots necessarily, but at least a hint of public disagreement. Where is it? Polling quoted by those pushing for a New Zealand republic puts support for our own head of state at 40 per cent. That is a decent minority. Yet the republican cause stays remarkably low-profile' - see: Is $1m royal tour value for money?.

Matthew's piece has plenty of other interesting elements, such as the response of the spokesperson for the Taxpayers Union, Jordan Williams, who declares that the visit is 'not really a fiscal issue', and that 'the monarchy is quite inexpensive'.

Radio NZ reports that the Royal tour could be protest free. Maori activists in particular have moved out of 'protest mode'. Even Veteran Maori protestor Dun Mihaka, who once 'showed his rear end to the royals during their 1983 tour of New Zealand to highlight the cultural domination of Maori', is only planning a very mild protest - see Julia Hollingsworth's Mooning activist plans royal protest.

Revival of monarchism in New Zealand

So perhaps New Zealand is not really about to ditch the Monarchy. Certainly not according to John Key, who argued this week that there has been a resurgence in support for the royal family: 'If you go back about six, seven or eight years ago - maybe a decade ago - and asked the question whether New Zealanders wanted to become a republic, I think the numbers probably would have been 60-40 per cent opposed.... If you asked that question today, I think it would have been 80-20 opposed'. Of course, Key appears to be out of touch with latest poll results, as pointed out by Chris Trotter in his blog post Wrong On The Royals: Without his advisers, is John Key just another ill-informed Tory?.

But internationally there are plenty of other voices arguing that William, Kate and George are reviving New Zealand support for the monarchy. For example, the Daily Express' Richard Palmer has written for his British audience, asking Could William and Kate effect quieten calls for republic of New Zealand?. He cites John Key as having 'insisted that there had actually been a resurgence of support for the monarchy'.

On the CNN website, New Zealand historian Philippa Mein-Smith argues that in both New Zealand and Australia, 'republicanism seems to be in reversal' - see: Cheering Prince George but planning to do away with the Queen?. She also explains why the republican movement is historically weaker in New Zealand than Australia

In the British Telegraph, English author and journalist Harry Mount explains Why New Zealand will never be a republic, an argument that boils down to the fact that 'sentiment is more powerful than reason'.

Support for the Royal tour

It is also clear that there is plenty of local support for the royal tour. One of the key arguments in its favour is the economic benefit that the royals bring to the country. For example, the Manawatu Standard's Michael Cummings writes, 'Putting both the hype and the skepticism to one side, though, the visit by William and Kate is undoubtedly good for the country. Rightly or wrong, the young couple attract huge international media interest wherever they go. The exposure New Zealand will receive while they're here is worth much more to the country than the price paid by taxpayers to host them. People of William and Kate's star power drive tourism; people will see them here, decide to come here themselves, and the money they spend on transport, accommodation and shopping ultimately ends up in the pockets of Kiwis working in those sectors' - see: Exposure worth more than tour costs.

And there seems to be some evidence for this economic impact - see the Daily Mail's Kate and Wills effect: Flight searches to New Zealand soar 153% on DAY ONE of royal tour.

Others cite the 'modernisation' of the royals, as having helped ameliorate opposition. For example, The Press newspaper says, 'sentiment towards the royal family is as firmly positive as it has been in years, helped as much as anything by the palpable ease and charm of William and Catherine. Certainly, the idea of replacing the Queen as head of state with a president and turning New Zealand into a republic is one that is unlikely to be implemented any time soon. Republicanism as a serious political movement is virtually non-existent in this country. It is a notion that has been flirted with by some politicians in the past but it has always run into the problems of why would we do it (the present arrangement has existed for a long time and does not appear to be broken) and how would it be done' - see: Warm welcome for Royals.

To see how the New Zealand royalists are supposedly modernising too, see Brittany Mann's Changing face of monarchists. She says that 'New Zealand monarchists are no longer the decorative-plate collecting, tea-towel toting fuddy-duddies of yore'.

For other generally favourable views on the benefits of the royal tour, see Lee Suckling's Why the Royals are worth it, Shelley Bridgeman: The cost of the royal visit - is it worth it?, and Mike Yardley's Incredible Cambridges are renewing the royal brand.

Politicisation of the Royal visit

There's always the pretense that royal tours are not political, and the politicians have attempted to prevent the visit from becoming overtly politicised. Yet the façade broke down yesterday when questions about its timing in an election year, and whether the Prime Minister was 'milking' the opportunity were brought up by David Cunliffe. The Labour leader asserted that he was 'not going to play politics with it', but believed that John Key had successfully managed to get extra 'facetime' and photo opportunities with the royals - see Vernon Small's Labour accuses PM of milking royal visit. Similar arguments were made by Cunliffe supporter Greg Presland on The Standard - see: The politics of the Royal Tour.

Winston Peters also came out with some strong words on the issue, calling for 'a bit of elegance and a bit of taste', and declaring 'I'm starting to feel really sorry for baby George and it's only day one. I just would hope we don't see this obsequious subservient photo-opportunity behaviour. You can guarantee I won't be part of it' - see Vernon Small's Politicians swap barbs over royal jockeying. Such scrapping in the name of the 9-month old royal, caused blogger Scott Yorke to pen his parody post A statement from Prince George.

International media coverage

About 450 journalists are covering the royal tour and it's certainly interesting to see how the trip is being reported elsewhere. For a start, there was the sensational and incorrect story in Britain's Daily Express: Maori dancers asked to cover up to not embarrass the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Government Minister Chris Finlayson denounced the story as 'an infantile prank' but, as TV3 revealed, it was more a case of a New Zealand expert being reported out of context - see: Maori undies 'prank' a misunderstanding.

And the international media have even taken an interest in how TVNZ's Heather du Plessis-Allan reported on the royal journalists - watch the 5-minute item here: TVNZ Royal report goes global.

For much more in-depth background and history about New Zealand's orientation to the royals, see Megan Cook's Te Ara encyclopedia entry Royal family. Also see the excellent Wikipedia entry on Republicanism in New Zealand, which includes details of various politicians' stances on monarchy and republicanism. And for even more on the pros and cons of republicanism, you can watch last year's 40-minute TV3 debate: Should we ditch the royals?.

Finally, there's a bit of humour to be found in the royal visit. Toby Manhire has brilliantly put together a children's story about New Zealand politics and society for Prince George, in the style of Lynley Dodd's Hairy Maclary books - see: Cheery McWavy - A Kiwi story for baby George. To see how New Zealand cartoonist view the tour, see my blog post Cartoons about the Royal Tour of New Zealand. And Scott Yorke provides A message from the Royal Tour Organising Committee.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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