Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Elite inferiority complex

Does New Zealand's elite have an inferiority complex? Does that matter if they do?

Having a New Zealander as our head of State is a legally simple, straightforward change for us to make, yet it attracts a lot of unneeded baggage and irrelevant issues. It often seems to me that the arguments for retaining the status quo tend to re-enforce exactly why we need to change: that an institution which is moribund and irrelevant to New Zealand is seen as key to our democracy - and that a New Zealander in the role would be inferior - underlines the exact attitudinal change having a New Zealand citizen as head of State would bring about.

While on holiday in the United Kingdom recently I shared an article published in the New Zealand Herald from the Queen's Birthday weekend on the need for a constitutional discussion in New Zealand, starting with the head of State. Liam Hehir - of Firing Line column fame - made the point that he saw support for a New Zealand republic as an "elite inferiority complex". This is a new line of argument which again underlines my thinking.

In my experience, our "elite" - politicians, judiciary and leaders in culture, business, sports etc - are just as divided on this issue as the rest of the country. In other words, most don't really care about it with two small camps of monarchists and republicans slogging it out. There is, however, a strongly dismissive line on our head of State, because the issue is considered unimportant and a base distraction only of interest to the small-minded. This attitude was typified to me in a recent speech by the Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias, to a conference on the Magna Carta:
"...the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta may be a good time to take stock of how well they are serving our society. It is puzzling, I think, that the constitutional conversation we have had to date seems largely hung up on the identity of the head of state..."
Dame Sian added the New Zealand public:
"...seems reluctant to engage with bigger ideas, such as the fulfillment of the ideas set loose at Runnymede in the circumstances of today."
This attitude is by far the most common among New Zealand's political and judicial elites.

So if you support change, do you suffer from some sort of inferiority complex? I don't think so. Sure, there's an element - a tiny element - who feel inferior because of the monarchy. But it's the type who are vehemently and irrationally against the Royal family simply because they're Royal. By and large the arguments for change are rational and focus simply on our maturity as a country. That's not inferiority, if anything it's frustration at our insularity and insecurity.

I would add here too that I see that insecurity over and over again in this debate, and in the flag debate more recently. It's strange to me that a fairly well known New Zealand historian made the argument that without the Union Jack on our flag, New Zealanders would forget that we were once a British colony, or that most of our institutions were inherited from the United Kingdom. It's as though the mere thought of one part of that colonial heritage no longer being an official symbol means all other parts and institutions would disappear.