Monday, July 17, 2006

Cutting the strings

The Prime Minister used her press conference today to announce some slight changes to the Letters Patent, the little-known constitutional documents which establish the office of Governor-General and affirm cabinet government in New Zealand. Most of the changes relate to the use of the title "honourable" - the Governor-General will now be entitled to use it as of right, and decisions on awarding it will now be made in Wellington rather than London - but there are also a couple of slightly more significant ones. Firstly, the order of succession for the Administrator of the Government (the person who steps in as Governor-General when the Governor-General is out of the country or dead) is generalised to be the most senior officer of the judiciary. Secondly, the Governor-General no longer has to ask someone in London for permission to leave their own country. It's a minor change, but perfectly in keeping with the slow and progressive cutting of the apron strings we've seen for the last two decades.

There was also some minor snark at the end about whether there would still be "Right Honourables"; the Clark government has steadfastly refused to request that anyone be appointed to Privy Council, either as a judge or senior politician. And quite rightly too - the Privy Council is a British institution, not a New Zealand one, and given the legal and factual independence of New Zealand, it is simply inappropriate for us to be asking to have people appointed to a governing body and highest court of somebody else's country.


I think your final comments about the Privy Council overlook the key fact that non-UK (political) appointees do not, by convention, actually take part in procedings related to UK matters. It's really just empty title in that context.

And isn't Clark already a member from the 4th Labour govt days?


Posted by Anonymous : 7/18/2006 12:12:00 AM

M'Lud: Empty title or no, its still no part of New Zealand's law or constitutional structure, and we shouldn't be appointing people to it even in name only.

Helen Clark and Winston Peters are our last surviving (political) relics of the privy council, but they've both faced election multiple times since swearing their oaths. The problem is with appointing new members - they'd automatically have to resign their seats, triggering either a by-election or a new list appointment.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/18/2006 01:34:00 AM

"The problem is with appointing new members - they'd automatically have to resign their seats, triggering either a by-election or a new list appointment."
-can you explain that more? I don't see why.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/18/2006 09:48:00 AM

I'm intrigued by I.S's final comment too, why should appointment to the Privy Council require anyone to resign their seats?


Posted by Anonymous : 7/18/2006 10:10:00 AM

g: because the oath of office required to become a privy councillor involves swearing allegiance to a foreign power (namely, the queen in right of the UK rather than the queen in right of NZ - they're legally seperate entities).

Details are here.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/18/2006 10:12:00 AM

As must as I favour a set of indigenous NZ honours, I don't know why we can't incorporate the old "Sir" and "Dame" knighthoods into our present honour system - ie you get an ONZ but get the honorific too.

Surely we can (re-)"invent" the tradition in indigenous terms, reflecting our English heritage but reflecting our autonomous nationhood nowadays...

Posted by Dean Knight : 7/18/2006 11:09:00 AM

I hadn't read your original post, and I'm definitely receptive to the argument, but I don't think it's entirely clear cut.

The reason NZ has an Ambassador to the United States, and a High Commissioner to the United Kingdom is that the two countries differ - one is a Foreign Government, the other a Commonwealth Government. A similar distinction is drawn in the name of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK.

Privy Councillors do not swear allegiance to the British Sovereign, but swear allegiance to Elizabeth personally (who is Queen of New Zealand). Office in the Privy Council does not survive the Queen. A new PC needs to be sworn in if a new Sovereign reigns.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 7/18/2006 11:13:00 AM

Dean - we obviously can do that, but I understand that NZers have grown up (or something lke that) :)

I'd point out, however, that the ONZ (which was created in 1987)is supposedly the equivalent of the OM, and as such never carried a knighthood (unlike the New Zealand Order of Merit - created in 1996) - which did - the KNZM/DNZM and GNZM becoming the DCNZM and PNZM)

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 7/18/2006 11:32:00 AM

Dean: We have our own honours; they're just not ones where the government presumes it can legislate respect.

Graeme: I'm not sure why you think the Commonwealth is relevant. Sure, we're part of it, and it signifies a shared cultural heritage. But nostalgia isn't the law. The fact remains that the PC simply has no status in New Zealand law - and that pretty much rules out any argument that the oath of office is to the Queen in right of NZ rather than the (legally foreign, even if it is the same person) Queen in right of the UK. And I think this applies even if the oath is personal.

But I'd welcome a test case, just to watch the shit fly...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/18/2006 11:51:00 AM

"Privy Councillors do not swear allegiance to the British Sovereign, but swear allegiance to Elizabeth personally (who is Queen of New Zealand)."

Yes, but which one do they swear allegiance to Graeme? The Queen personally in her capacity as British Sovereign? Or the New Zealand Sovereign? If it is the British Sovereign, I/S is correct, because the British Sovereign is a foreign Head of state; whereas the New Zealand Sovereign is not.

The whole situation is rather stupid really. New Zealand is a sovereign, independent country. We should affirm this reality. Up the republic!

Posted by Lewis Holden : 7/18/2006 12:05:00 PM

lewis - the argument I was proposing would be argued would be neither. Just Elizabeth Windsor. Not Elizabeth Windsor in Right of the UK, not Elizabeth Windsor in Right of NZ, but Elizabeth Windson, daughter of Mr and Mrs Windsor of London :)

I'm just saying I think there's an argument, I don't know how it would actually work.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 7/18/2006 12:31:00 PM

Graeme: such private oaths of allegiance are precisely what the law is intended to prevent. It's as much a problem for democracy if your elected MPs go around swearing allegiance to the Duke of Orleans as to the King of France; either way, they're bound to serve someone other than their electors. Though interestingly, the law only seems to cover foreign governments, rather than powerful individuals, so there might be a loophole...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/18/2006 01:27:00 PM

Yes. But if that private individual to whom allegaince is sworn also happens to be Queen of NZ then it's ok... Or so the argument would go.

In the case of the Electoral Act, however, joint or split allegiance of our representatives is NOT the problem sought to be avoided. People with dual-citizenship, or those grandfathered-in with British Citizenship only (e.g. Matt Robson for much of his time as an MP) can be MPs. The problem is rather the election of people who subsequently do an act that changes their loyalties (which is not what people who elected them voted for).

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 7/18/2006 01:56:00 PM

Graeme: which would rather undercut the monarchist position that oaths of allegiance (such as those sworn by the police, the army, and MPs) are to the "impersonal crown" rather than the person of the monarch...

As I said, I'd love a test case, simply to watch the shit fly. But we aren't likely to get one under Labour, so we may have to wait until there is a change of government for the fun.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/18/2006 02:16:00 PM

Well, oaths of allegiance sworn by MPs, the Army, those becoming citizens etc. do not have to be taken again if the Sovereign dies. Privy Council ones do.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 7/18/2006 02:52:00 PM