2 Jul 2018

Monarchy New Zealand's Sean Palmer in defence of 'Queen and country'

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 2:30 pm on 2 July 2018

Aotearoa is not immune to stirrings of republicanism, but expert Sean Palmer of Monarchy New Zealand is adamant it's worth staying royal: for price, security, equality, and for democracy itself.

He says the contribution New Zealand's royal family - yes, that's right, New Zealand's royal family - is quite remarkable.

From prince to pauper?

Something that often crops up in arguments for New Zealand to become a republic is the cost of maintaining the royal family, but Dr Palmer says that's a bit of a misconception.

A postage stamp depicting Henry VIII.

A postage stamp depicting Henry VIII. Photo: andylid/123RF

"The fact is that constitutional monarchies generally speaking, all around the world and not just in the commonwealth are very cost effective," he says.

A middle-aged Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria in 1875. Photo: Painted by Heinrich Von Angeli © HM Queen Elizabeth II, 2017/Bridgeman Images

"New Zealanders contribute less than a dollar a year to the monarchy … that money is spent only on the governor general's establishment here … and for when royals come down to the country on tours.

"There are some really fantastic cost-benefit evidence around those tours … but even in Britain where you have a monarch resident … the British contribute a very small amount there - I believe it's around £1, about NZ$2 per person.

"Every nation has an office of head of state, and whatever the alternatives might be are going to incur similar costs.

"Generally I think they tend to be a little higher with Presidents because they're trying to impress the rest of the world in a way that monarchs don't necessarily have to."

He says the British royal family keeps its public and private purse quite separate.

"They do not own Buckingham Palace, they do not own the royal collection.

"Even if you were to declare a republic in Britain or New Zealand or anywhere, the royals themselves - their personal finances - would not be tremendously affected.

"I think you would find members of the royal family saying 'well, maybe instead of opening this hospital and shaking 100 hands, maybe I go down to the beach in Antigua and spend a week there. That's one thing they could do if they were not constrained by the role that they are in.

"If we were to open the gilded cage and shoo them out, we might actually find ourselves a little worse off."

Dr Palmer says equating monarchies with extravagance may be because of the way they are presented.

"Part of it I think stems from the fact that the pageantry associated with monarchies can be interpreted as extravagance."

Defence of the realm

Fiji SODELPA leader Sitiveni Rabuka

 Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka led two coups against the ruling British monarchy in Fiji in 1987. Photo: AFP

So maybe it costs less, but one wonders what good the royals actually serve. Dr Palmer says one of their most important roles is as a constitutional safeguard.

"They have real powers that can be used, but they would only be used in emergencies and we are fortunate that we have not had a lot of emergencies over the last century or so.

"I cannot recall the last occasion in Britain itself that the Crown had to get involved in something [politically], wouldn't surprise me if it was a couple of centuries ago, but a very famous example in Australia was just 1975 when the Governor General acting on behalf of the Crown dismissed a sitting Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam."

He said the case of Fiji was also interesting. Some people said the two military coups led by Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka were evidence of a case where the monarchy was unable to save democracy, he says.

"But what they're not necessarily taking into account was that there was a coup in April 1987.

"The governor general worked against it, negotiated, did a tremendous amount of work in restoring democracy, and in fact was so successful that the same man, Rabuka, launched a second coup in October of 1987.

"Unfortunately, the odds of a country surviving one coup are not very good. The odds of it surviving two in six months are pretty limited."

"I've always thought it was absolutely remarkable that the same man carried out a coup twice in six months because he felt he had been completely sidelined by the monarchy's efforts to restore democracy."

Long live the Queen

Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II Photo: Julian Calder CC 4.0

Another benefit of a monarchy, he says, is stability.

"It tends to be measured more in centuries rather than decades or years," he says.

"I think we will see a King Charles the third, and we will see a King William the Fifth, and it might not quite happen in my lifetime as he is a little bit younger than me, but I think we will see a King George the Seventh of New Zealand as well.

"I often look to Denmark which is the oldest continuous monarchy in Europe and it's been going strong for over 1000 years, and I think we could give that a run for its money."

He says the problem with many of the monarchies that have failed in history was that they weren't constitutional monarchies, i.e. democracies.

"They ruled those countries, they didn't just reign in them, and if you lose a world war you're going to be on the hook if it was you that made those decisions, so it's not surprising those monarchies were brought down."

He says there are about 45 monarchies around the world, and most these days are constitutional monarchies.

"They are certainly smaller in number than they would have been maybe 100 years ago … but generally when a monarchy was brought down it was because it was not."

That had been the case with Britain's ruling family historically, but times have changed.

"At one time the king's word was law, and slowly those powers have been whittled away.

"Like the signing of the Magna Carta, where the barons said 'you don't get to run around in charge of everything, the rest of us have some say in this' … of course they were all wealthy landowners themselves, so we wouldn't call it a mass democratic movement but it was an interesting step.

"Charles I in the 1600s tried to be just a little too autocratic, and even by the standards of the day, and so they cut his head off, which is a pretty pointed statement to make.

"When you leave only assassination as the only viable form of protest you open yourself up to a lot of instability, and the strength of most successful constitutional monarchies over the centuries has been a tremendous flexibility and an ability to adapt."

We are Royals?

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex in the Ascot Landau carriage during the procession on The Long Walk after getting married St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.

 Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex after getting married at Windsor Castle. Photo: AFP

He says successful monarchies are those that can adapt, and one of the more recent adaptations in New Zealand's monarchy had a gendered agenda.

"One of the most recent adaptations that we've seen was actually spearheaded by the New Zealand Cabinet office, was the development of equal rights between male and female heirs to the throne.

"So this was back in 2011 before Prince George was born, the 16 countries that the Queen is the queen of, said 'it's wrong that we skip over girls if there's a younger brother. We should just take the oldest one."

It may seem ironic, but in a way royalty can be seen as an example of equality.

"Anything that can happen to people in ordinary life can happen to royals and they're expected to continue with that job. It really speaks to the value of everyone in society."

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)