As New Zealanders, we generally don't talk much about what it is that makes us unique as a country. Unlike some others, we are diffident and don't brag about our national achievements (unless it is a sports win!) and we don't wear our patriotism on our sleeves. We don't get too excited about our national institutions, they don't impinge too much on our daily life and we have a generally low opinion of our national politicians, reinforced by the singular peculiarity that is 'Question Time' in Parliament!
But we are in fact very proud of our country and we are pleased when we meet people overseas who admire us and who like New Zealand. We know, despite its many challenges, that this is one of the best places in the world to live, and certainly the most beautiful. Whatever our origins, whether we came in the first canoes, or as more recent migrants over the last 200 years, we are here because we want to be here, and we are quietly proud of what we have achieved.
We have in fact been embarked on a process of nation building ever since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. It has been an uneven process and is not yet finished. Looking back over the last 200 years, we can see that New Zealand, like other colonies throughout history, has gradually sought to assert its independence from the colonial motherland, establish it own institutions and develop its own international personality. Surprising, therefore, that we have still to take the final step of achieving complete nationhood and to assert ourselves as a truly independent and sovereign nation. This is important not only to the way we see ourselves, but also to the way others see us. And as a small country that has to survive in a tough international arena, how others see us is crucial to our future progress and prosperity.
I want to reflect on my own experience of New Zealand's international personality from over 35 years years working in the New Zealand foreign ministry, pursuing New Zealand's interests on six overseas postings, in international fora, and from visiting many more countries to represent us.
The issue is quite simple: after over 170 years of nation building, are we yet mature enough as a country to have a New Zealander as our Head of State?
It is hard to believe that many New Zealanders would answer in the negative, yet we continue to acquiesce in the status quo of having a Head of State who is not a New Zealander, is remote from us, most of the time absent and who cannot represent us in a critical aspect of the Head of State role, that is, internationally.
This debate is not about Queen Elizabeth or her successors. Hers is an unparalleled record of public service, and of selfless and untiring dedication to her role as British monarch. In the whole of British history, there has not been a monarch to equal her. It is though a solely matter for the people of Britain to decide what happens to the monarchy there in the future, that is not an issue for New Zealanders.
But if it is true that we in New Zealand had no say in choosing the British monarch as our Head of State, neither did Queen Elizabeth have any say in being required to fulfil the role of New Zealand's Head of State. Any initiative to change her role in respect of New Zealand cannot and will not come from her. In the debate over whether New Zealand is mature enough to have its own Head of State, this is a matter solely for New Zealanders to determine and it in no way detracts from the respect which Queen Elizabeth justly deserves and merits from all of us.
In the campaign for a New Zealand Head of State, we should have no truck with those who seek to denigrate the Queen personally or throw pullovers at her. The debate needs to be conducted in a respectful tone and manner, in keeping with the dignity and respect that should be accorded the office of Head of State, the most important representational institution in our country. I know from my time in the South Pacific and Asia that we are thought less of, if we fail to treat our Head of State with the respect she
The Governor General is the monarch's representative in New Zealand but by definition, he or she can only ever be 'viceregal'. The term 'viceregal' has fallen into disuse among New Zealanders generally, but it inevitably means that the Governor General is only a 'representative' of the Queen. He or she does not in any real sense 'represent New Zealand or New Zealanders'. He or she is the 'deputy' Head of State, and can never be anything else. I want to reflect on why this is damaging to our international interests.
The British monarchy is one of the oldest in the world, and as a student of history like many others, I learnt at an early age the names of every British monarch since Edward the Confessor. But no matter how fascinating and interesting historically, it is an institution that is essentially foreign to this new nation of ours and its future. It is built on an inherited, divisive social structure and hierarchy that is out of keeping with how we see ourselves as New Zealanders. We are egalitarian through and through, or strive to be, and despite differences in origin, culture, or wealth, each New Zealander knows he or she is as just good as their neighbour. Any politician who forgets this does not last long in NZ.
How different then is the British system which upholds the institution of the monarchy. I have over the years met most members of the British royal family, although with perhaps one exception, they would not recall the encounters! They have been pleasant, if overly formalised, occasions for the most part. They are hard working individuals seeking to uphold the role and institution thrust upon them, and to meet the demanding expectations of the British public. That there is a residual link to New Zealand via the Head of State role in this post imperial and colonial era is, I suspect, regarded by them as a historical anachronism, although they would never say as much. Their occasional visits 'Downunder" must strike them as strange and exotic as it is for a New Zealander going to Bali.
Supporters of the monarchy in New Zealand sometimes cite added cost as a reason for not having our own Head of State This is a 'cheapskate' view of the most important representational institution in the land. The New Zealand taxpayer funds only the cost of the office of the Governor General in New Zealand, and makes no contribution to the huge cost of maintaining the monarchy in the UK through the Civil List and maintenance of the class system that makes the monarchy possible. The monarchy can only survive with a large expensive extended family, and a panoply of offices, sinecures and perquisites that most New Zealanders inevitably find antiquated and distasteful.
In short, it is the British taxpayer that funds the bulk of the costs associated with the institution of the monarchy and we New Zealanders are making no contribution. Frankly, I am surprised at the forbearance of the British taxpayer in not asking us to pay a fairer share of the costs associated with the institution of their monarchy!
The Queen is Head of State of some 15, mostly small, countries in addition to the UK. In this busy, modern, post imperial and post colonial period, are we really suggesting to the British public that being Queen of the UK is less than a full time job in itself, such that, as Queen, she still has time to share herself with so many former colonies who claim her as Head of State. If I was a British monarchist, I suspect I would think that it was high time we New Zealanders made arrangements for our own Head of State and stopped holding the coattails of theirs!
The monarchy can only survive if it is based on exclusiveness and exclusion, concepts that New Zealanders instinctively reject and dislike. Those who are fascinated by the monarchy have, I suspect, had little personal experience of the stifling protocol, formality, class distinction, and snobbishness that must accompany it. If we had to experience these features in the office of our GovernorGeneral, New Zealanders would soon react against it. We get echoes of this when the British media, detecting the awkwardness associated with the formality of a John Key visit to Balmoral, label our Prime Minister with epithets such as 'colonial clot'!
In projecting and pursuing New Zealand's interests overseas, which is a large part of any foreign service officer's work, you make use of all the tools you have available to develop a favourable image and impression of New Zealand, its people and to advance our economic interests. Occasional visit by our Prime Minister help to fly the flag as do visits by other Cabinet Ministers. But they are all busy people, the visits are rushed affairs, and in my experience you are lucky to get the Prime Minister in town for a day, maybe two, to meet senior leaders, business people and advance the NZ national interest.
As I said, as a small country, it is crucial that NZ is active on the international stage in pushing its own economic and trade interests and raising our profile. All New Zealanders understand that. Other countries do the same with us.
We in turn receive regular visits from overseas dignitaries who are intent on advancing their own countries' interests in New Zealand.
But we have been missing out. Why?
To give an example. Germany is an important bilateral relationship for us, an important export and import market. To underline the importance of developing good diplomatic relations with New Zealand, the Germans have sent their Head of State, ie their President, three times to visit NZ, President Scheel in 1978, then von Weizsacker and finally Rau in 2001. These are important political and bilateral occasions.
So how had New Zealand reciprocated these visit? How did we push our own interests in Germany at the very top level? We didn't. The Germans sent their President three times. Until 2004, we did nothing in the other direction, except occasional short visits by successive Prime Ministers who were not accorded the same level of recognition. We had simply felt hamstrung because we don't have our own Head of State.
Part of the problem is that, internationally, there is almost no understanding of what the office of Governor General means in New Zealand. People understand what a 'Governor' is someone who is governing a territory on behalf of a central authority. It has colonial overtones. Ask an Indonesian! But that is not the case for New Zealand.
The confusion is understandable.
My colleagues and I have had many conversations overseas along the following lines:
'So, you are from New Zealand. Lovely country, very green, lots of sheep. I liked Lord of the Rings'.
'Yes', (you say) 'but we also have some dynamic industries too, we're not just sheep and cows'.
'Ah really? Who is your Prime Minister, I have heard of Helen Clark'.
You explain the situation, but they probably have not yet heard of John Key.
'Ok, and who is your Head of State?'
This is where the discussion gets tricky.
'Our Head of State is Queen Elizabeth. She is represented by a Governor General in New Zealand'.
'Governor? Why do you have the British monarch as you Head of State. Aren't you independent?'
'Yes, well, it's historical, we were a British colony but we aren't any more. In NZ, she is not the British monarch but 'Queen of New Zealand'.
At this point, the conversation ends, with a glazed look in the eye of the person you're talking to. They are much too polite to say it, but they wonder how a country can be independent and still have a foreigner as Head Of State. It would be inconceivable in their own situation. There is no point in trying to prolong the discussion. Perception is everything. I have found people in Asia, the Middle East and Europe particularly confused about our international persona.
But I can hear NZ monarchists saying 'well, who cares what they think, that is the way we do it in NZ.' That unfortunately is a very narrow, myopic and damaging view.
When the office of Governor General was localised and henceforward held by a New Zealander, the Governor General of the day did not undertake much international travel on behalf of New Zealand, apart from occasional visits to Tokelau. His (and it was then always a 'his" ) role was purely domestic.
That was how successive New Zealand Prime Ministers, who tightly control the office of Governor General, had preferred it. Understandably, Prime Ministers generally prefer to undertake the international travel and exposure themselves, including attending key international or political meetings such as APEC, the UN or CHOGM. The Foreign Minister and Trade Minister, and other Cabinet Ministers, also undertake travel to represent NZ but they are too junior in the scheme of things to be accorded top honours by the country they are visiting.
In recent years, starting as I recall with Helen Clark's Government, the Governor General has been tasked with greater, if still limited, international representational travel on behalf of New Zealand. This is a welcome development, but there is always the initial question: How will the Governor General be received by the host country? We make a big mistake if, as informal New Zealanders, we think questions of form and formality on such occasions are unimportant in an international context.
Will our Governor General be received as equivalent to a Head of State or as just a viceregal representative? International practice on this differs. It greatly affects the manner in which the visitor is received. In my time as Ambassador to Germany, we organised high level visits by Dame Silvia Cartwright to Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic. These were the first such visits EVER from New Zealand. Sir Anand Saytanand also visited Singapore on several occasions while I was there.
On one visit, the organising authorities, unsure how to receive our Governor General, did quietly check with the British whether there would objection if the Governor General was received as if they WERE a Head of State, and to the credit of the British authorities, the answer was that there would be no objection. In other words, the British themselves are more than happy to see the office of Governor General develop an international persona.
Other countries, to my knowledge, did not make similar inquiries of the UK, less concerned I suspect about causing a diplomatic upset. Dame Silvia's extended four day visit to Germany in 2004, which largely went unreported in the NZ media, was the first by a Governor General to that country, and was warmly received by the Germans, who you will recall had already visited NZ three times at Head of State level before Dame Silvia's visit.
A poignant moment was when Dame Silvia laid a wreath at the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden in Berlin just across the road from where Goebbels burnt the books in 1933. If ever there was a final gesture of reconciliation with Germany after the war, this was it.
But our own media decided New Zealanders should not be permitted to share in the moment.
The key observation, then, is that there is considerable international confusion on the role and status of the Governor General but there are occasions when it has been possible to break through the confusion and organise a successful visit which advances our key interests. But the confusion remains.
There are some countries though where such visits won't be possible.
I can think of one European country which has a monarch as Head of State which will never receive our Governor General as equivalent to their monarch, because they know our actual Head of State resides not too far away across the Channel. In such cases, the visit is likely to be accorded the lesser status of a 'working visit', which is not the same thing.
When I was in Berlin, the British Ambassador kindly invited my Australian and Canadian colleagues and me to an official dinner on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth's State Visit to Germany. It was a grand occasion, but it came as a shock to me (although it should not have) to realise that here was my Head of State in Berlin and she was completely unable to fulfill a key part of the role required of her, namely to represent, in this case New Zealand's, interests in Germany. She could only ever represent the UK's interests. We little realise in NZ that we have a Head of State no fault of hers who cannot, in the nature of things, represent and advocate for us in any meaningful manner internationally.
Moreover, we are underutilising the office of Governor General. His or her role is no longer just domestic, although we tend to see it as limited to this.
The Governor General should be tasked to undertake a much more active role of international representation for New Zealand to complement the work of the Prime Minister and other Cabinet ministers, to open doors for New Zealand business, to support our international negotiations and campaigns and to advance our economic interests. The Governor General should be visiting our key bilateral partners much more actively than is currently the case. To not utilise the office of Governor General in this manner is a wasted opportunity.
Admittedly, it will be much easier for the Governor General to do so, and have far greater impact, when he or she goes as our actual Head of State and not as the representative of one.
The argument that we don't want to change the status quo because we will end up with a politicised Head of State, ie the Keith Holyoake precedent, is, I believe, scaremongering and unrealistic. Who New Zealanders choose as their Head of State is for New Zealanders, or our own representatives, to decide but let's make the transition gradually: the simplest first step is to keep the present system used to appoint the Governor General but without reference to the Queen. Changes to this appointment process can then be made, if we want to, in later steps through consultation with the people of New Zealand.
Have we really been saying to successive prominent New Zealanders, like Michael Hardie Boys, Silvia Cartwright, Anand Satyanand and Jerry Mateparae, 'well, we think you are capable of performing the highest office in the country but unfortunately you can only occupy the number two slot'. Who doubts that anyone of them would have made an excellent Head of State in their own right?
Can you imagine telling Richie McCaw and other past All Black captains: 'yes, we think you are good enough to lead the All Blacks but only in the number two slot, as unfortunately by tradition the captain has to be British!!'
Absurd, isn't it, yet we happily do that for the highest office in the land.
Let's consider some of the issues that arise in having our own Head of State, and try to dispel some of the bugbears advanced by the traditionalists!
It does not mean we have to leave the Commonwealth. We won't and shouldn't. In my view, Queen Elizabeth and her successors should continue to lead the Commonwealth and New Zealand can and should remain a member. There is in fact scope for us to be much more active in the Commonwealth including through its development assistance programmes. Traditionally, the Commonwealth has not been a high priority of the Foreign Ministry's work, although when we campaign internationally, eg for a seat on the UNSC, then we realise how important the friendship of fellow Commonwealth countries is to the success of our campaign.
And neither should it mean the end of royal visits to New Zealand. There would still be visits in the role of Head of the Commonwealth and the continued close social ties to Britain means the British royal family will always be welcome here. There is scope too for us to support some of the good ideas, eg regarding the environment and conservation, that Prince Charles has been espousing.
And the editor of the New Zealand Women's Weekly can rest assured that there will still be plenty of demand for paparazzi pictures of the royal family and royal baby. That does not need to change. It wont affect her circulation numbers.
But let's not imagine that the birth of a Prince George is a 'global event' or that 'Prince Harry" is the 'world's most eligible bachelor' as our media would have us believe. We must guard against an overly Anglocentric view of the world, a mistake we all too easily make!
And to the Maori people, who might argue that the link to the British crown is special, I see no reason why that personal and social link can't continue if NZ has its own Head of State. But wouldn't Paul Reeves have also made an excellent Head of State for New Zealand? And let's not imagine that somehow the British monarchy has been or is guarantor of the Treaty of Waitangi for Maori or that it has done anything to right the wrongs inflicted on Maori in the land wars and subsequently. Addressing Maori grievances had to await a sympathetic and engaged NZ government. If Maori were depending on the link to the British crown to address Treaty grievances, I am afraid they would still be waiting. Neither would having our own Head of State detract in any way from the centrality of the Treaty as a founding document of this nation. He or she would in my view in fact ensure the Treaty was given due profile and recognition in our national life.
And to the argument that Queen Elizabeth's longevity has provided political stability, there is no evident merit in that argument, certainly in respect of New Zealand. Whether successive New Zealand Government's are politically stable or not is entirely a function of New Zealanders' own behaviour, attitudes to their government and our political processes. Admittedly a foreign dignitary might wonder about this if they sat through 'Question Time' but I usually found a way to avoid exposing key visitors to that particular event, although New Zealand politicians were often keen to visit the equivalent session of the Canadian or German parliaments, which were much more decorous events!
There is also an argument sometimes made that having the Queen as our Head of State advances our interests in the UK, and Europe more generally. Unfortunately, there is little or no substance to this.
The British are much more hard nosed about these things than we like to imagine.
Britain's future rightly lies in the EU and it will not jeopardise its relationships in the EU for the sake of New Zealand. I once asked a senior British diplomat if in the UK we were still regarded as 'family'. He had to admit, despite the fact that many of us do have UK links, that we are no longer 'family' in the traditional sense. And despite repeated pleas recently to the British Government, including by our Prime Minister no less, for it not to levy a punishing air passenger tax on UK travellers coming to NZ which would adversely impact on our tourism industry, we got an unequivocal 'no'.
While the relationship with the UK does remain important politically and socially, and as an OE destination, (although the British Prime Minister is a rare visitor to these shores), and we still send former politicians there as High Commissioner as reward for past service, we need to develop stronger links with the rest of the EU as a whole, which is an important market, source of ideas and innovation and soft power internationally. The question of our relationship with the UK is quite distinct from that of our relationship with the British monarchy, and is kept separate by the British too.
The absence of a New Zealand Head of State present in New Zealand does leave something of a vacuum in our country's daily life. I know the purists will rush to disagree, saying the Governor General adequately fills the Head of State function domestically but I am talking about something less tangible, more symbolic, more emotional perhaps.
Always at the back of our mind is the fact that the Governor General is only 'No 2'. It is hard to accord the same respect to the deputy as to the chief. You will recall the mutterings in some quarters when Sir Ed Hillary died, and the suggestion that our Head of State should be present at his funeral. Let's get real. On all such occasions of importance in our national life, our Head of State is not going to be present. It is unrealistic to expect that she would be.
There have been Prime Ministers of New Zealand who have evinced republican sympathies, but they have in practice done nothing about it in their time in office.
Perhaps the issue is seen as an electoral liability, certainly they have not seen electoral advantage in pursuing it. No doubt, many of our politicians are republicans and others convinced monarchists, with views genuinely held, so the debate needs to be conducted in a respectful manner, calmly and unemotionally. At least, let's hope so!
A Head of State of our own would be a huge positive step in finishing the work of nation building, someone who in their own right can represent the NZ persona domestically AND internationally. The people of New Zealand need to make their views on this important issue known, so that our political leaders can feel empowered to take up the challenge. I am assuming of course that, when the question is put to them, few New Zealanders will assert that we are still too immature as a nation to have our own Head of State.
Finally, we need to pay more attention to building the international role and profile of the Office of Governor General to ease the transition to that of our Head of State. Successive Governments in my experience generally do not make any real effort to keep the Governor General fully in the loop on major domestic and international developments.
Does he receive as a matter of course key cabinet papers? The GG does not to my knowledge receive regular briefings on foreign policy issues and diplomatic despatches. In fact, I have known some Ministers actively to discourage this. He should routinely see these. And the Prime Minister should make a point of regularly briefing the Governor General privately on key issues and developments, as the British Prime Minister does for the Queen, quite apart from the general discussion at Executive Council meetings, which the PM does not always attend and which are essentially pro forma.
We have come a long way since 1840 in building this country. We still have some final steps to take and in our preoccupation with our daily life and routine, we should not let this go by, by default or apathy.