The people rule; that's enough

LIAM HEHIR
Last updated 12:00 05/08/2014

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OPINION: When I was about 14 or 15, I went through a phase of being ashamed to be seen out with my parents.

My kid brother and I might have gone to a rugby game with our dad and then I would become embarrassed to see we were sitting near a group of cooler kids from school who had gone out together. Would they think I was an immature loser who had no friends to go with?

It's a fairly standard phase for adolescents to go through. You grow out of it.

Having lived away from home for a decade now, I quite like doing stuff with Dad. However independent (more or less) I may now be, I owe him a lot and I'm proud to share his name.

I sometimes think about this when the supposed inevitability of a New Zealand republic is discussed. Republicans often frame this in terms of the different stages of human development. Our country starts out as a colony, as dependent on Britain as an infant is to a mother. Over time, we grow to emerge from the Mother Country's shadow.

As they would have it, all that remains for us to do is to embrace the maturity of adulthood by cutting the apron strings of our constitutional monarchy - and those of us who would oppose this are just too insecure in our own identity to take that final step.

The metaphor of growing up is not actually a bad one. The problem is just that the republican telling of it is incomplete. Specifically, their version does not seem to account for the awkward teenage years.

Teenagers struggle with stress about outward appearances and other shallow things.

They suffer angst about their identity and question who they are. It is a time of pointless rebellion where you do things like paint your walls black, get an outrageous haircut or ask your parents to drop you around the corner when you are meeting friends.

This is why I think the people who are really insecure are those who fret about having a constitutional monarch as head of state. Like the allegorical teenager, they are overly concerned with image and abstractions. These are things that, in the greater scheme of things, actually mean very little.

Nobody contests the idea that we control our own domestic and foreign affairs. Our government is answerable to the democratically elected House of Representatives. Our courts are independent and uncorrupted.

Yes, in theory all political sovereignty flows from a hereditary monarch who lives in another hemisphere.

But what would happen if the Queen or her heirs ever tried to impose their will on us?

We would ignore them and their reign over us would end. This means they would never even think of involving themselves in our affairs. Accordingly - and unlike any number of existing and historical republics - we have very little in the way of grievances against the current system.

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So why would we become a republic? Republicans say it would "foster a deeper and more sophisticated sense of nationhood." In other words, it would be a decision based on introspection and navel-gazing about things that aren't really problems.

To illustrate the relative unimportance of outside appearances, consider the overthrow of the Roman Republic by Augustus, who we now recognise as the first Roman Emperor. During his long rule, Augustus never actually took a royal title. His sovereignty was to a large extent informal, with the people still technically being governed by a republic.

In fact, this facade was maintained for the next 300 years. Perhaps the Roman people were comforted by the fiction that on paper they remained a free people. The emperors certainly didn't care. They knew that the substance of power, not its outward expression, is what truly matters.

I suppose the republicans might get their wish, with the rest of us just ambling along to the day when a bland "Republic of New Zealand" is proclaimed. Maybe then they will feel they can walk tall as citizens of a country where the law says that sovereignty emanates from the people rather than a single person - as it does in Russia, Cuba, North Korea and Zimbabwe.

But maybe things won't play out that way.

Like teenagers finally finding their feet, New Zealand's republicans might just outgrow their angst over who we are and how we got here. Shedding their insecurity about our superficial monarchy, they could join the rest of us in our sense of confidence that New Zealand is a country where, through Parliament and subject to the rule of law, the people rule.

And on that score, we don't have anything to prove to anyone.

- Manawatu Standard

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