Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Don't stop at the flag - vote on monarchy too

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Britain's Prince Charles. Photo / AP
Britain's Prince Charles. Photo / AP

Spare a thought for Charles. The Prince of Wales and heir apparent to the British throne was busy this week with such tasks as attending a sale of Herdwick sheep in Cumbria, but like any father he'll have been keeping tabs on the adventures of his first-born, his daughter-in-law and his grandson in the farthest outpost of the Commonwealth.

He'll be thrilled, no doubt about that, by the rapturous coverage in both New Zealand and British media (the occasional unkind remark about Wellington's fabulous weather aside, Fleet St's kooky royal corps seem to have been having a lovely time). Still, who could reasonably blame the man if his enchantment were tempered by a moment of self-reflection?

The broad consensus, we're told, is that the status of the monarchy in New Zealand is safe, that the prospect of a republic has been kicked into the long and distant grass. That's chiefly attributable to two things: the longevity and gravitas of Queen Elizabeth II and, especially, the breath of fresh, amiable and safely glamorous air provided by William and Kate, with added sparkle from a sweet royal sprog.

When the NZ prime minister says enthusiasm for a republic feels dramatically diminished today compared with a decade ago, the inescapable inference is that, back then, the monarchy appeared carved in Charles' image. When John Key says, "I think that speaks volumes about the way that William and Kate, as young royals, have modernised the royal family and their place as the head of state," it also says something about the way people see William's dad.

Where Charles is tied up in people's minds with romantic ickiness, personal awkwardness and political interference, William and co are all but unblemished.

And what media stars they are, filling countless column inches and oodles of airtime. The duchess took seconds to walk down the steps from the Air Force 757 in the Wellington wind, babe in arms, but judging by talkback radio on Tuesday morning, this was the most important news event of the decade. Half an hour later, the world paused with Kate in the gardens of Government House to collaboratively examine a buttock.

And, most delightfully of all, Prince George wobbled royally around the floor of the governor-general's lounge with a posse of his New Zealand contemporaries in the most pored-over playdate in the history of the world, the travelling media narrating as if it were an Olympic opening ceremony.

I enjoyed especially the tweets from the correspondent for Britain's avidly royal Daily Mail.

"Prince George made a little girl called Paige cry after grabbing her toy wooden doll. Kate attempted to soothe her by stroking her head," she wrote. Followed by: "Unfortunately George hit a little girl called Eden in the face, dislodging her headband, as he tried to grab her toy!" And: "One mum told me: 'No one was going to stand in his way'!"

All of which, it goes without saying, is utterly ordinary behaviour for an 8-month-old child. And yet this is the future king, so forgive me if I imagined him going on to wave a yoghurty spoon in the sky and demand that Eden and Paige be sent directly to the tower, before shuffling over to Lieutenant-General Sir Jerry Mateparae and gurgling an order to seize back the Crimea forth-bloody-with.

No matter how entertaining and likeable the touring royals might be, however, this is surely no basis on which to assess the appropriateness or otherwise of monarchy. And even if you do fancy William as head of state, or if you see reassuring signs of aplomb in wee George, none of that changes the fact that the next Rolls-Royce off the rank is Charles. He is the heir.

The tourism argument is flimsy, too. News that travel sites saw a surge in searches for "New Zealand" over recent days is splendid, but a strange basis on which to determine constitutional status. After all, the Middle-earth movies have delivered plenty of tourism spin-off, but it's not as though we appoint a Hobbit president, or assign Peter Jackson some exalted position in which he determines the law of the land. Pardon? Oh. Well, you know what I mean.

Key put it neatly just the other day. New Zealand had moved on from "a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed", he said. "We are a sovereign and successful nation that rightfully takes its place among developed economies in the 21st Century". He was talking, of course, about the flag, pledging to establish a cross-party group to arrange a referendum on its future - an initiative Labour has supported.

Which is fine and dandy and welcome, but all rather trivial in comparison to the monarchy question. And Key's assertion that eagerness for a redesign of the flag outweighs the mood for reconsidering the place of a family in London at the top of our state just doesn't bear scrutiny.

Recent polls show just as many want to change the origin of New Zealand's head of state as want to change the flag, and at least as many want a vote on the matter.

So why not get the working group to come up with a question on that? If the serious case for the status quo really is so strong, its cheerleaders should welcome it, too.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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