Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Little ado over royal mating habits

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Changes to succession law largely go unnoticed except for an atheist who's alleging discrimination.

Henry the tuatara. Photo / NZPA
Henry the tuatara. Photo / NZPA

If anybody knows how the royal family feel about living life under the public microscope, it is Henry the tuatara, who lost his status as New Zealand's oldest virgin at the age of 111.

His mating with the sultry 80-year-old Mildred in 2008 was watched avidly - reminiscent of the days when a bloody sheet was hung from the balcony as proof of consummation. It happened at 1700 hours on Friday, March 14. The Southland Museum curator reported it to a world that had waited so long for Henry to get his act together that it had stopped waiting. The media went wild.

There is one difference between Henry and the royals, of course. Henry has a harem of three ladies, Juliet, Lucy and Mildred, about whom the description "prolific breeder" can only be assumed to mean she is a tad promiscuous. Royals, by law, have to be more picky in whom they marry and bear children to.

Given the public fixation with the breeding habits of royalty, little attention has been paid to the Royal Succession Bill tabled this week.

New Zealand - and 15 other Commonwealth nations of which the Queen is head of state - must change their laws to match those of Britain, which is revising statutes dating back to the 1700s. The most significant change is dropping the primogeniture law that gave precedence to males over females in the line of succession to the throne.

Another change will mean royals who marry a Catholic can still ascend to the throne - previously marriage to a "Papist" was forbidden although there was no specific mention of marriage to people of other religions so presumably Moonie spouses are okay and certainly disciples of the Prince Philip Movement from the Yaohnanen tribe of Vanuatu, who believe the good Prince is the the son of a mountain spirit.

Another rule up for change is the monarch's veto right over all family members' marriage choices. That veto stemmed from a 1772 law which required all descendants of King George II to get the sovereign's assent to marry. It appears this was not applied diligently - the new bill explains that "hundreds" of those descendants' marriages were technically invalid because they had not been aware of the requirement. The new bill will require only the first six in line to the throne to get the monarch's consent. It also provides for all those invalid marriages to be retrospectively validated en masse, which again brings us to the Moonies, who do love a mass wedding.

In New Zealand, there was not the same outcry about the Government changing domestic laws at the whim of the royal family as there was about law changes at the whim of Warner Bros. It may be that people do not generally consider the royal family to be oppressed on the issue of human rights. It may be that Prince William is seen as a less malevolent force than a Hollywood studio boss. Or it may be because the law change will enhance the right of young Catholics everywhere to share the teenage dream of becoming a prince's Mildred.

Of all people, it was the atheist republican Keith Locke who went in to bat for royals' rights. He wrote to Attorney-General Chris Finlayson and asked for a Bill of Rights Act vetting of the Royal Succession Bill, claiming it discriminated against people on the grounds of religion. His argument was that while the bill did remove the barrier on royals inheriting the crown if they were married to a Papist, it still prevented a person of any other religion from ascending to the throne by keeping the requirement for monarchs to be Church of England. Such a barrier, he argued, effectively deprived people of the right to choose their own religion if they wanted to be King or Queen. He also objected to the monarch's right of veto over the marriage choices of the first six people in line to the throne.

Mr Finlayson has declined to do any such vetting. Advice he obtained from the Crown Law Office effectively stated that to ask hard questions about Britain's choice of succession laws would be inappropriate.

"A shared, hereditary monarchy is a core feature of our constitutional arrangements. The rules that govern succession are historically and politically complex. They are inapt for detailed Bill of Rights Act scrutiny."

Crown Law acknowledged that some discriminatory measures and "differential treatment" remained, such as the requirement for the first six in line to get consent to marry, but that was justified in the "unique context" of the monarchy. It also argued that other monarchies also had a requirement for the sovereign to consent to a marriage, such as Sweden.

As for Henry, he had six children from that first mating - the same number as the wives his royal namesake King Henry VIII went through while separating the Church of England from the Catholic Church in the 1500s. Henry presumably treated Mildred better than Henry VIII treated his wives, because he has since given her a further five babies.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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