WOULD THE QUEEN invite Britain’s leading political journalists to Buckingham Palace to discuss the next General Election? Would she ‘eck as like! Her Majesty has not retained the affection of the British People for 60 glorious years by trashing the conventions of constitutional monarchy.
At the heart of those conventions lies the principle that while Britain’s (and New Zealand’s) kings and queens may reign – they do not rule.
In both the United Kingdom and New Zealand the monarch is guided by the advice of his or her ministers. When meeting in the Monarch’s absence this body of advisers is known as the Cabinet. In the UK, the Cabinet is drawn from members of both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. In unicameral New Zealand, however, it is composed exclusively of Members of the House of Representatives. With both the House of Commons and the House of Representatives elected directly by the citizens of their respective nations, true sovereignty, under the Westminster System, must ultimately be deemed to reside in the people.
Written down in this way it all looks very neat and tidy. But, the truth of the matter is that the “conventions” of our constitutional monarchy were not politely conceded. On the contrary, they were extracted – violently – by civil war, “Glorious Revolution”, and the unrelenting pressure of ordinary people demanding the right to determine their own destinies.
Which is why (getting back to the question of the Queen meeting privately with leading political journalists) it would be extremely dangerous for the monarch to raise even the slightest suspicion that he or she was giving thought to making some sort of intervention in the political affairs of the realm. Were he or she to do so, his or her subjects might get the idea that their monarch was planning to rule as well as reign.
Kings have been beheaded for less.
What about vice-regal get-togethers with political journalists? It might not do for Her Majesty: but, surely, a few beers up at Government House with the hacks from the Press Gallery wouldn’t compromise our blokey Governor-General?
Oh, yes it bloody would!
The thing about the British royal family is that it has the status – the mystique – which comes from nearly ten centuries at the summit of British society. Originally, a king of England may have been first among equals: a feudal magnate with both the savvy and the sword-arm necessary to rule in a violent age; but he was also something else. He needed to be able to convince his peers, his priests and his people that he had a right to rule. And the people were not easy to convince. It was generally believed that there was something divine in the blood of kings. To be one, you either had to show that it was royal blood flowing in your veins, or, be so bloody good that God was obviously making an exception.
But Governor-Generals are very far from being kings. They are appointed by politicians to officiate unremarkably at state occasions, and to deliver endless anodyne speeches to bored audiences on safe subjects. Good Governor-Generals should be so socially and politically invisible that, when their five-year terms are up, 95 percent of the population struggle to remember their names.
Over recent decades, successive governments have tended to fill the post with retired members of the Judiciary. Such persons are used to staying out of the political spotlight and can be relied upon to pronounce wisely and authoritatively on the constitutional conventions underpinning our Westminster System of government. The last thing you want is a Governor-General who overshadows the sovereign.
All of which makes it extremely difficult to endorse the political reasoning behind the appointment of Sir Jerry Mateparae as New Zealand’s Governor-General.
For a start, Sir Jerry is a former Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force. And ever since the British lumbered us with a Governor-General who had refused to testify against an accused war criminal on the grounds that he might incriminate himself, New Zealand politicians have shied away from appointing former military officers to the job. The likelihood of those commanding troops engaged in shooting wars becoming involved in matters unable to withstand very much in the way of public scrutiny was considered too great.
But even though Sir Jerry’s time as CNZDF coincided with New Zealand’s deadly involvement in Afghanistan, and notwithstanding his subsequent role as head of the controversial GCSB, the Prime Minister, John Key, broke with tradition and appointed his personal friend, Sir Jerry Mateparae, Governor-General of New Zealand.
And now we hear that on Friday 8 November 2013 Sir Jerry hosted a private dinner party for journalists in the parliamentary press gallery, during which he delivered a speech setting forth the potential constitutional difficulties he might face as Governor-General if the 2014 General Election turns out to be a close one.
According to the NZ Herald’s political correspondent, John Armstrong, Sir Jerry alluded to the possibility of the next government not being formed by the party which received the most votes – pointing out that such an outcome would be unprecedented in the MMP era. He also raised the question of whether or not it was acceptable for a party to deal with legislation on a case-by-case basis. Armstrong’s report has the Governor-General “insisting” that “all parties involved in post-election negotiations make ‘unambiguous’ explanations of their intentions on confidence motions so that it is obvious where party allegiances lie.”
Most alarming, however, was Armstrong’s interpretation of Sir Jerry’s remarks as being “directed at the Greens, NZ First, the Mana Party and Colin Craig’s Conservatives – and much less so at Act, Peter Dunne’s United Future and the Maori Party who have an impeccable record in not threatening Government stability.”
If, as Armstrong insists, the Governor-General is “obviously concerned that next year’s election could produce a potentially shaky Government”, then both the speech he delivered and the time he spent with the country’s leading political journalists takes on a deeply troubling aspect.
If he was a corporation, Sir Jerry’s behaviour would likely be construed as lobbying. He would be seen as “softening up” the electorate’s principal explainers of political affairs in advance of a sequence of events with the potential to be interpreted extremely negatively.
If the product the Jerry Mateparae Corporation was selling was “political stability”, then his message, summarised by John Armstrong as: “that along with the power that flows from being in Government come hard-to-swallow obligations. And the most important is not to undermine the very system that put you there”; seems entirely consistent with an intention to intervene directly in the process of government formation.
But Sir Jerry Mateparae is not a corporation, he is New Zealand’s Governor-General, and is, therefore, constitutionally and morally obliged to uphold the conventions of our constitutional monarchy. New Zealanders hold to the principle of popular – and hence parliamentary – sovereignty with particular tenacity. Determining who forms a government is a matter that belongs exclusively to the parties which the people have elected to represent them in Parliament.
No Governor-General (especially not one who is both a former army commander and spymaster) has any right to interfere in or dictate the course of that process in any way. If agreement on a viable governing coalition eludes the Parliament the people have just elected, the only correct course of action open to Sir Jerry is to call upon them to elect a new one.
All New Zealanders owe John Armstrong a debt of gratitude for bringing the meeting of November 8 into the public realm. It is now time for this country’s senior jurists and constitutional experts to closely question Sir Jerry Mateparae as to the precise meaning of his speech to his Press Gallery guests (beginning with the release of the full text). As citizens we all now have a strong interest in the Governor-General setting forth plainly his personal interpretation of the vice-regal role.
Because it does not appear to be one the Queen would recognise – or endorse.