Peter Hamilton: Welcome to the Republic of New Zealand


It was all over in 30 seconds. The bright shiny Land Rover rolled past, with a stiffly erect driver. At the open back, a young woman, in her late 30s wearing long white gloves, waved to the assembled school children lining the route.

Tauranga Domain in the summer of 1963. I had been selected, from my Intermediate school in Hamilton, to be bused to Tauranga for the day, along with several hundred others. We got to spend 30 seconds waving at this lady as she drove past.

Her formal title is Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of New Zealand. Her handsome young husband, Phillip, stood beside her.

She has visited us eight times more, but not since 2002.

I am a lot older now, and so is the Queen, I did not meet her in person for another 40 years, when I was Ambassador to Germany and the Queen came on a State visit to Berlin.

Queen Elizabeth in Tauranga with David Mitchell, the Mayor of Tauranga, during the Royal Tour of New Zealand in 1963. Photo / NZ Herald Archive

Part of her programme involved visiting a small community on the outskirts of Berlin, in what had been Communist East Germany, to thank the villagers for looking after the graves of Allied soldiers killed in the two world wars. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission had been denied access by the East German Government.

Along with the Queen, I joined several Commonwealth Ambassadors to lay a wreath at the refurbished cemetery.

The event was dignified and sombre, carefully scripted and choreographed by the Queen's minders. They gave everyone careful admonitions on where to stand and how to address the Queen: "Don't speak to her unless she speaks to you. Then you must say 'Your Majesty', and thereafter Ma'am as in 'arm,' not Ma'am as in 'jam'. And (fair enough) don't shake her hand unless she offers hers first."

It was very British. Even the Germans, who have not had a monarch of their own for 100 years, were unused to protocol as formal as this.

On another occasion, Prince Andrew came to Samoa while I was High Commissioner there.

A shy man, ill-at-ease in public. His female minder went around the room surreptitiously shoving people towards him so that they would engage him in conversation, rather than waiting for him to work the room himself. He looked out of place in the more relaxed South Pacific setting.

A few years later, Charles and Camilla were transiting Changi Airport after a trip to New Zealand. I was our High Commissioner to Singapore. I liked Charles and we had a long conversation about environmental issues in the South Pacific. What struck me was the obsequiousness of the royal household, as numerous worried servants scurried about to fulfil their appointed tasks. Very un-Kiwi in its stifling formality.

The Queen is a remarkable woman with an unparalleled record of public service. Her age and experience command respect. Few of us have lived under any other monarch. Yet a change is coming, and we need to prepare for it. The non-resident British Royal family has little in common with New Zealanders.

This one family, solely by right of birth, still fills the office of our Head of State, the most important constitutional office in our country.

Will we next have Charles III (King of the Kiwis) and Queen Camilla or eventually King William V or King George VII?

The former Camilla Parker-Bowles has visited us only a couple of times. Hardly a qualification to be Queen of New Zealand. We can be sure it's not on her list of priorities.

The younger British royals may be photogenic (although, in one instance, dysfunctional) but they have few connections with New Zealand, except as occasional welcome visitors reflecting our colonial past.

It is time we began the changes necessary to have a New Zealander as our Head of State. This would not be a difficult or complicated process.

If we don't want a US-style Presidential system, the simplest way is to have our elected members of parliament select our Head of State for this non-executive, largely ceremonial but important role, much as is now done in choosing the Governor-General.

Peter Hamilton. Photo / Supplied

We can, and should, remain an active member of the Commonwealth. Most Commonwealth countries are republics.

And the Treaty of Waitangi? It was the Crown through the British imperial government that comprehensively undermined the Treaty soon after it was signed in 1840. It was left to a local New Zealand Government, in the 1970s, to begin the long and difficult process of rectifying the many Treaty breaches. Hardly a compelling reason to retain the British monarch as our Head of State.

Attitudes have changed since we all stood expectantly in the Tauranga Domain. So too has New Zealand changed. We are more confident of our place and role as an independent South Pacific nation. It is time, when the Queen passes, to make the transition to a republic to reflect this.

• Peter Hamilton is a former diplomat and former deputy secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He is on the executive of New Zealand Republic; and author of New Moons for Sam: Becoming Kiwi – Life of a New Zealand Diplomat.

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