Ditching the royals might sound appealing, but republics have not exactly set a shining example of democracy in recent years, argues Danyl Mclauchlan.
Republican discourse is back. The latest round was triggered by the Meghan and Harry and Oprah interview, but the question “should New Zealand become a republic?” gets raised every couple of decades. It was a thing in the 1990s and early 2000s: back then New Zealand had a lot of legal and political academics who’d studied in the US, and more of our politicians and journalists had been to Washington on state department-sponsored trips, so there was a lot of end-of-history Americanophilia in the air. Surely, they argued, the MMP reforms were just the beginning of our nation’s radical constitutional transformation into a fully fledged independent republic?
At the time it did feel absurd that a modern liberal democracy should have another nation’s hereditary monarch as our head of state. We needed a presidential system, the argument went, and a written constitution and a supreme court to interpret it. Both the Clark and Key governments made tentative moves in this direction. We now have our own supreme court instead of using the UK’s privy council (although our absence of a formal constitution massively depoliticises it, which seems like a good thing when you observe the way the US is plunged into a crisis every time one of their elderly supreme court judges dies). And John Key tried to change our flag but failed. Many people seem to feel that we’ll become a republic one day. Eventually.
But the world has changed since the 1990s, and it’s changed in a way that makes republicanism seem a lot less attractive. For the past 15 years the 21st century has experienced a “democratic recession”: a global decline of liberal democracy, a widespread failure of liberal and democratic institutions. And almost all of this democratic backsliding has taken place in republics: Turkey, the Philippines, Venezuela, Brazil, the ex-communist republics of central and eastern Europe. Even the US system looks shaky. And they’ve failed, or are failing in exactly the way liberal theorists who favour constitutional monarchies predicted they would: via “autocoups” in which an authoritarian leader wins the presidency and then takes over the country, arresting the opposition, deposing judges, postponing elections, taking over the police and armed forces.
The logic of the constitutional monarchy is that it helps protect the political system from this kind of attack. Back in January of 2021 there was a failed coup in the US. Donald Trump refused to accept the outcome of the presidential election, which he lost, and he ordered his supporters to attack the US Capitol in order to try and pressure them to overturn the results. The attempt failed. But if Trump had been a more strategic operator, whose party leaders, generals and intelligence chiefs didn’t openly despise him, it might have worked, and the US would have been locked into a trajectory taking it towards tyranny or civil war.
Under a constitutional monarchy the presidential role is split out into a ceremonial head of state with almost no political power, and the executive that has power but is legitimised by the monarch. You can’t contest the monarchy because it’s hereditary, and when there’s a legitimacy crisis or a constitutional crisis over who controls the executive, all of the politicians, soldiers and police have sworn to obey the monarch, not the head of government. And the monarch can play no role other than to direct them to serve the legitimately elected government, or for the country to hold new elections. They’re the apolitical actor at the apex of the political system.
During the late 20th century, this extra level of stability seemed superfluous: it prevented coups the same way Lisa Simpson’s rock “kept tigers away”. In the 2020s it looks as if this form of liberal democracy really is more stable. Most of the peer nations we like to compare ourselves to – your Canadas and Australias and Denmarks and Swedens and Norways and Japans – use the same system, and seem in no hurry to change it.
The media theorist Andrey Mir coined the term “concentration discourse” to describe the way digital-led media in the 21st century focuses intently on one issue for a few days, treating it like the most important event in history, then forgets it completely and switches to something else. It’s a cheap way to generate content and drive engagement. And the discourse has already moved on from the Sussexes’ attempt to launch their celebrity brand in the North American media market. Something else is the most important thing in the world now. But the question of New Zealand’s constitutional future remains.
The constitutional monarchy is not a perfect system: if the UK’s monarch or presumptive heir looked like Edward VIII, or Thailand’s Rama IX, or Prince Andrew, we’d probably be looking for the exit and a new head of state (King Richie? First Citizen Swarbrick? We’d figure it out). But in the absence of any such crisis it’s no longer obvious that the republican model is inevitable, or even desirable. Our current system is not broken and may be far better than the alternatives. Republicanism is not the solution to any of our current problems, and it may create terrible problems of its own.