Friday, December 16, 2011

Feudal relics

The Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand highlights the feudalism which still lies at the heart of our constitution:

The Governor-General appointed a new government today. By doing so he used one of his "reserve powers" - the ability to appoint the Prime Minister and Cabinet (technically the Executive Council) without anyone "advising" him to do so. All on his own, he re-appointed Prime Minister John Key. In the smoke and mirrors world of "our" constitutional monarchy, the fact that we had an election - where we all had a say last month - doesn't feature.


The Governor-General's re-appointment of the Prime Minister is a nicety. It has no practical value other than to remind us that under the constitutional monarchy, power comes from a monarch. It's as if that election we had was just to arrange the seats in the Governor-General's debating club.

This is a relic of feudalism, when the monarch was supreme, Parliament was just their debating club, and the Prime Minister was the monarch's Prime Minister. But that hasn't been the case in our constitutional structure for over three hundred years, and while there has been further evolution since then (notably the introduction of democracy), its been the case ever since that it is Parliament which makes governments, not the monarch. And yet we continue the old feudal fiction in our public ceremonies. Other examples are the Speaker of the House being granted the House's privileges by the Governor-General (rather than asserting them at axe-point), and the House being summoned "to tell the members of Parliament the Government’s reasons for bringing Parliament together to meet" (rather than it meeting by itself as the independent and legitimate source of political power).

Like the oath, these feudal relics do not reflect the values of modern, democratic New Zealand. And its time we expunged them. Parliament should formally elect the Prime Minister, rather than them being appointed by an unelected head of state. Its privileges should be set in statute, rather than being dependent on the grace and favour of the representative of a foreign monarch. And it should set its own agenda, rather than being ceremonially told by that foreign monarch's representative what it should discuss. Symbols matter, and ours should reflect our values, not those of a long-ago and far away foreign country.