John Roughan: Tribes and the tolerant state

By John Roughan

Sealords, Treelords, what is the country coming to? The curmudgeon's question is reasonable. Forests, fisheries, commercial real estate in some places and quite a few parks and reserves are getting new landlords.

Treaty settlements are creating a new class of hereditary wealth. Economically it should be positive - the land under Kaingaroa Forest, for example, will be priced transparently and open to other uses.

But socially? Colonial settlers didn't come here to be tenants. Whether English, Scots or Irish, most were coming to the new world precisely to escape that fate.

Lordship is a claim that resonates fearfully in the descendants' cultural memory; it is fairly gutsy of Maori to invoke it. And amusing. "Treelords" is a truth expressed so bluntly it is wry. This landlord class might not take itself as seriously as the one that oppressed my forbears for centuries.

The tribalism of the new dispensation is what worries descendants of Celtic and Germanic iwi because those differences are so deep in our blood we rarely acknowledge them.

Last weekend I was among fellow chatterers at a Marlborough vineyard for an annual symposium organised by Amy Brooke, an author and blogger of fiercely traditional principles.

The first evening featured a discussion of republicanism led by the national convenor of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, David Flint, previously chairman of Australia's Broadcasting Authority and Press Council and still president of the English Speaking Union there.

He cut a fine figure of rational tolerance. Containing a certain triumphal glee, he gave a fair explanation of the viewpoints of Australia's two strains of republicanism, the parliamentary and electoral, and explained how they lost the 1999 referendum.

Briefly, the referendum offered a republic with a head of state appointed by Parliament. It was voted down by an unholy alliance of royalist sentiment and popular distrust of politicians. A directly elected presidency might have done better.

Cunningly, the Rudd Government now proposes two referendums, the first to pit the status quo against unspecified change, then, if a majority votes for change, parliamentarians will worry about convincing voters at a subsequent referendum that an independently elected head of state is really not a good idea.

Listening to Flint, I pondered why monarchists do not support the parliamentary republicans. Constitutionally very little would change, he said. Governors-General are chosen by the parliamentary majority and exercise all the formal powers of the Queen.

In fact a resident in touch with the public mood is a more effective head of state; it is hard to imagine the Queen forcing a government from office as Sir John Kerr did to the Whitlam Government in Australia.

Why, therefore, persist with the notional authority of a woman on the other side of the world? Someone said the question was emotional.

A couple of other contributions from the floor found it odd that New Zealand, if not Australia, still paid obeisance to a position of hereditary privilege. They were said to be emotional too.

All three of us, it struck me, had Irish surnames. Tribalism is emotional, not rational.

There is no reason to change a constitutional monarchy that works. I simply dislike its stiff Germanic character - it doesn't represent me, or at least not most of me.

The Queen is too English, too wordless and emotionless, especially on occasions that call for something splendid to be said. I was appalled at her effort for the opening of the Auckland Commonwealth Games.

The failure to send even one member of the family to Hillary's funeral, and our indifference to the slight, confirmed for me the death of any intimacy this institution has had with our national life.

It survives in the hearts of people like David Flint, I suspect, for reasons that are every bit as emotional as mine. The president of the English Speaking Union feels the force of heritage, I would guess, more strongly than I do.

He wouldn't call it tribal but it is.

Tribalism, according to Dr Elizabeth Rata, an associate professor of education at Auckland University, who spoke to the symposium the following day, is a purely Maori thing, a plot to privatise resources, change people's allegiances and weaken the nation-state.

She calls it "neotribalism" to suggest that it is new and not quite true. She was prim and properly spoken.

Despite her name she seemed very English too.

Tribalism - kinship that recognises itself - needs self-determination somewhere in the world. English tribalism is so accustomed to power that it doesn't recognise itself or any other.

That night the deniers of tribalism celebrated the solstice by skipping around a bonfire and singing Land of Hope and Glory. They have no idea how that grated in the sinews of an Irish soul but I can live with it.

Tribalism, so long as it finds national expression somewhere, is capable of co-existence in a tolerant state. That, I think, is what we are coming to.

- NZ Herald

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