Friday, 16 September 2016

Only two things are inevitable in life...

As the old saying goes, there are only two things that are inevitable in life: death and taxes. In his recent column, Liam Hehir writes that a New Zealand republic is "less than inevitable", even after what you'd think is a fairly good poll result for those of us who support a New Zealander as head of State. Liam challenges me to a wager (I'm guessing as former chairman of New Zealand Republic Inc) that a New Zealand republic is not inevitable. The wager has something to do with painting his house.

It's not a bet I'll accept, not because I don't like painting (did plenty when I was younger, not so into it anymore) but because Liam is right: a New Zealand republic is not inevitable. And it's very odd to me that over the years many people have expressed surprise that I take that view. But in many ways the poll result Liam discusses re-enforces it. Some people think I'm defeatist by saying this, and I'm sure plenty of monarchists take comfort from it.

It turns out that the things that are inevitable - dying and paying tax for the privilege of doing so - are some of the sort of issues that matter most to the public. Inevitably, we're all focused on what affects us the most in life: whether there's a decent job for you to earn a living from, a good public health service if you get sick, a decent school to send your children to, a house to live in and transport between all four. The nature of our head of State is as Liam states a pretty minor issue that, like his weatherboards, may eventually get some attention.

And when it does, it will most likely be just as contentious as the nightmare that became the flag debate and referendums. But ten times worse, because a republic not only touches the thorny issues of national identity and constitutional change, but also the Treaty of Waitangi and the interrelated issue of the legal nature of the state (that is, whether we keep referring to the Government of New Zealand by a shorthand name for a piece of feudal headdress).

Then there's the issue - highlighted in the poll - that while support for both of the republic models is above the golden 50% mark, that doesn't mean (as Liam accurately points out) there's a majority for change, much the same as the final weeks of the flag debate, when UMR polling found a majority of voters supported change, but only 40% wanted the particular flag on offer. It gets even worse when you analyse the motivations - as I did in this Spinoff article - for direct election of the head of State versus parliamentary election, and the huge contradiction of the public's distaste for a politician being head of State, and 44% support for the system (direct election) most likely to result in one.

Unsurprisingly I don't accept Liam's analysis of the reasons for change. To my mind, the case for keeping the monarchy is weak, being built almost entirely on misinformation and nostalgia for a time when we were a part of the British Empire and economically provided for; dependent, apathetic, insular and disengaged from the world (as I discovered during the flag debate, there's a large group of people who view any change to the flag, head of state, anthem etc as moving away from the grand old days of Fortress New Zealand, replete with its pre-EEC economy and welfare state).

The case for a New Zealand head of state, and building a national identity around a narrative of being independent and standing on our own two feet, is much stronger. The claims of an inferiority complex are nonsense - if anything, our failure to make a New Zealander our head of state is the ultimate symbol of tall poppy syndrome.

The good news for Liam though is that the difficulties of change - and the public's general lack of any appetite to deal with them - mean there will be significant barriers to change for some time. The bad news is that the barriers can be removed, and are likely to be in the coming years. Take the Treaty for example: it's highly likely there will be some sort of clarity constitutionally once the remaining Treaty settlements are made. The process for choosing our head of State can be sorted out now at the Governor-General level.

But all this is speculative of course. Like everything else in life, nothing but death and taxes are inevitable.