40 years ago it was possible to believe that it was only a matter of time before Aotearoa New Zealand became a republic. Royalists were seen as slightly-backward relics of a past age. They were out-of-date public curiosities rather than serious political players – like a hangover from childhood fairy tales and nursery rhymes.
Most of us thought the passing of the older generation would result in a natural evolution to a republic which would certainly take place once the Queen died. No-one then could see how we would tolerate Charles III – the awkward, anachronistic, public schoolboy – as our head of state. Back then it seemed certain that while we might remain loyal to the Queen while she lived, we would then ditch the monarchy and stand on our own two feet once she died.
With this in mind it’s easy to be cynical about the depth of mourning for the queen. Some hope it’s just a passing fad and that republicanism will inevitably arrive. I’m no longer convinced. Instead of the Queen’s passing being the signal to finally grow up and step out independently, I think the country is now so enfeebled that our legs won’t hold us up.
Consider these three things:
Firstly, when so many sobbed at QEII’s passing but not give a second thought to our children living in god-awful motels (the Fenton Street disaster is simply a stick to beat the government) then something profound has been stirred.
I understand people feeling a long-standing connection has been lost. As a child my school went, with every other, to the main road in South Dunedin in the mid 1960s to wave flags as her motorcade passed. She whizzed by – I had no idea which of the various people she was – but later the same day saw her on the balcony of the Dunedin Town Hall in the Octagon.
I had assumed most of us were mildly curious rather than impressed with the Queen but from reading in the last few weeks it seems those childhood experiences of seeing her made a bigger impression than I had thought. The surprising thing has been the apparent strong interest in all things royal, including the reading of the proclamation of King Charles III as our new king from the steps of parliament. Could this really be seen an episode to celebrate?
Simply put, I think too many of us are still too afraid to let go Mother England’s apron strings. Too many remain secretly thrilled at the endless reporting on the Royal family lives – voyeuristically watching them to be assured they share the same human foibles as the rest of us – infidelities, ego, lust, hubris, idiocy and stupidity. Perhaps at a personal level they provide a measure of reassurance as we go about our daily lives.
Secondly, many Māori leaders have always been reluctant to sever ties with the monarchy. Queen Victoria was their partner in the Treaty of Waitangi and they rightly believe this gives their claims for redress over historic injustices greater weight and significance than they would get from the local branch office of their colonial masters. Why then would we expect Māori to give up their relationship with the monarchy in favour of an elected head of state? The reaction of so many Pākeha, politicians in particular, to issues such as the Foreshore and Seabed, co-governance, the Tūhoe raids and Māori language in public spaces would give no encouragement to dropping the relationship with the Crown. Many Māori see the Union Jack in the corner of our flag as a lifeline rather than an ongoing tie to colonialism.
Thirdly, we are a vastly different country than we were in the 1980s. At that time we had begun to step forward independently in the world. We challenged issues in global politics such as apartheid in South Africa, nuclear weapons testing and our involvement in foreign military alliances. We readily went out to meet the newly minted independent countries of Africa and the undeveloped world. We took the United Nations and our international responsibilities more seriously.
But instead of continuing this outward development we have regressed quite dramatically.
We no longer have a credible claim to an independent foreign policy, no matter what our politicians say to the contrary. We have allowed ourselves to be swept back into the orbit of the old European colonies: Australia, Canada and the US and we take comfort in the “shared values” we have with them. Instead of standing independent and confident we measure our place in the world by the number of gold medals we win at the Commonwealth and Olympic Games and how many individual “entrepreneurs” we produce rather than the standard of living of our citizens.
We have lost any self-assurance to chart our own way here at home, let alone in the world. Instead, we live according to a series of well-nurtured myths – that we are a great place to raise children, that we punch above our weight, that we are clean and green, that we are a beacon for justice and tolerance in a mad world, that we give everyone a fair go – despite overwhelming evidence that all this is a crock.
Aotearoa New Zealand is a great place to be, provided you are wealthy. Taxes on the wealthy and super-wealthy are low while corporate profits are high. Meanwhile taxes on workers are high while wages are low and voluntary “codes of conduct” have replaced government regulation. A great place to do business but an awful place to raise a family.
Instead of moving forward we have drifted to become a foetid backwater for so many of our fellow citizens. Instead of growing in self-belief and maturity we seem to have entered a second childhood.
We no longer have the self-confidence to become a republic.