Monday, June 6, 2011

Queen’s birthday

One of the benefits of being a constitutional monarchy is that we have an annual public holiday.  Today we celebrate the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II.  Her actual birthday is 21 April.  But let’s not let facts get in the way of our right to choose when we have our holidays.  We celebrate it on the first Monday in June.

Like most New Zealanders I woke to my usual alarm which in my case is 5:15am.  The initial relief of realising I did not have to go to work today quickly gave way to irritation that I had forgotten, again, to turn my alarm off.

For many of us it is a stark reminder that we are well on our way into winter.  There are no more statutory holidays for the next four bleak winter months until Labour Day on the fourth Monday in October.

It is perhaps time to look at the relevance of the British Monarchy to New Zealand society.  Personally I think we are pretty much left to govern our own nation without undue influence from abroad.  Whether we become a republic or whether we remain a monarchy will not really affect the day-to-day running of our country.  The issue is an emotional issue rather than a practical issue for many New Zealanders.

New Zealand is a sovereign independent unitary State with a constitutional monarchy as I mentioned above.  The basic constitutional framework is set out in the Constitution Act 1986.  Section 2 of this Act proclaims the Sovereign as the Head of State of New Zealand.  The Governor-General is appointed by the Sovereign and is the Sovereign’s representative in New Zealand.

Legislation in New Zealand does not become law until the Governor-General approves it.  Section 16 of the Act provides that Bills passing through our unicameral Parliament do not become law until the Governor-General assents to it.  In practice, the Governor-General will only exercise his or her power to refuse assent to Bills on ministerial advice.

One power of the Governor-General of more interest is the power to dissolve Parliament.  In 1996 we had our first general election under the MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) system.  It’s a voting system based on the German model where each voter gets two votes, one for a candidate in his or her local electorate, and one for the party of his or her choice, chosen from those registered parties who have nominated a party list of members.

From my point of view the effect of MMP is that post election we end up with a centre left and a centre right party.  Neither has enough votes to govern alone.  So each one tries to string together a majority from a handful of minor parties.  It’s no small task.  The platforms of minor parties include indigenous sovereignty, libertarianism, anti-immigration, environmental activism, and fundamentalist Christian.  And that’s just the minor parties.  There are still more independents who have fallen out with their former parties.

Most of the post-election agreements take the form of formal coalitions or informal “got your back” agreements to support the ruling party on confidence and supply.  If the parties can’t sort it out within a reasonable timeframe then the Governor-General can step in and dissolve Parliament.  The mere fact that we have that provision is a good incentive to the parties to sort it out themselves.

The Governor-General also has the power to appoint ministers and judges, issue writs for elections and bestow honours.  It wouldn’t really matter whether these powers are carried out by the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative or by someone else.

In summary I don’t think the monarchy has much effect on our daily lives at all.  I suspect many New Zealanders are emotionally attached to Queen Elizabeth II.  This does not mean we are necessarily a country of royalists.  We just like the current Queen.  Many of us enjoyed watching the royal wedding of Prince William.  I think that wedding can only have increased the popularity of the monarchy among the younger generation.

We are unlikely to become a republic anytime soon.

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