IT MUST BE TWENTY YEARS since a bunch of well-meaning Pakeha attempted to hold a serious constitutional conference. Republicanism, a topic making a comeback following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, was on this long-ago gathering’s agenda, but so, too, was the Treaty of Waitangi.
That was the problem.
Once the Māori nationalists had laid down the wero of incorporating the Māori version of the Treaty into a reformed New Zealand constitution, the conference was over. As arranged, the good and the great delivered their thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of New Zealand’s ramshackle constitution, but nobody was really listening. Everybody understood that te Tiriti o Waitangi, if accepted as the true constitutional blueprint of New Zealand, would act like the most powerful acid on the institutions and principles of the colonial state.
Those attending the conference also understood that the Māori nationalist position was effectively non-negotiable. All future deviations from the constitutional status-quo would be in the direction indicated by the Māori nationalists and their Pakeha enablers in the judiciary, academia, the public service, the major political parties, and – now – the mainstream media.
In their heart-of-hearts, the Pakeha conference organisers understood that, henceforth, constitutional reform in New Zealand could only be a matter of the slow and incremental advance of te Tiriti to the heart of the New Zealand state. This transformation would be accomplished without the widespread popular debate, or validating public referenda, generally considered essential to the making of new constitutions. Indeed, it was clear that any te Tiriti-based transformation could only be accomplished by stealth, and only forestalled by force.
For all but the most naïve republicans, therefore, the Queen’s death was an event to be feared: inevitable, but fraught with danger.
The Māori Party’s recent ideological shift from monarchism to republicanism signalled the growing confidence of the Māori nationalist cause. Among the radicals, the Crown has lost its magic. The cosy relationship between the House of Windsor and the Kingitanga – which the Prime Minister was at pains to shore up by taking King Tuheitia with her to the Queen’s funeral – is as unlikely to withstand the drive towards a radical decolonisation of New Zealand as the “Settler State” itself.
With their Green Party enablers adding their voices to the Māori Party’s call for the indigenisation of the New Zealand constitution – a process which would begin with the repudiation of the name “New Zealand” in favour of “Aotearoa” – and Labour’s Māori Caucus determined not to be outflanked on the left by their Māori Party challengers, the Labour Party will find it increasingly difficult to maintain the position that the republican “conversation” can be put off to a later date.
That said, the radical agenda of the Māori nationalists will not be without its opponents. Quite how the Kingitanga is supposed to retain any vestige of ideological credibility in an Aotearoa shaped by the requirements of comprehensive decolonisation is a question bound to create serious division. Without the presence of the British Crown, the Māori Crown may strike the radicals as an embarrassing exercise in colonial emulation. The Māori King and his subjects are unlikely to take kindly to such an insulting characterisation.
The Iwi Leaders Group may, similarly, respond with growing alarm to the radicalism inherent in the Māori and Green parties’ decolonisation and indigenisation agenda. The curious blending of aristocracy and capitalism that has grown up under the auspices of the Crown makes precious few concessions to the poverty-stricken Māori masses living in the major cities.
Indeed, the blending of traditional Māori leadership with corporate capitalism, was the Crown’s inspired solution to the dangerous political potential of the uprooted urban Māori population. (Those with a working knowledge of Scottish history will recognise the origins of the model in the transformation of traditional clan chiefs into modern capitalist landlords that followed the final defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1745.)
The Māori Party, the Greens, and the Labour Māori Caucus may soon find their radical constitutional plans opposed by an alliance of Māori and Pakeha forces that traverses Left and Right. Included in the opposition, the tertiary-educated and largely middle-class Māori and Pakeha radicals may find not only those Māori who identify primarily as New Zealanders (the nearly half of Maoridom who opt to go on the General Electoral Roll) but also the very poorest and most marginalised Māori.
Young Māori, tertiary qualified, fluent in te reo, and earning a six-figure salary from a government agency, may find that they are not received all that warmly by Māori who are crammed into motels, micro-managed by MSD, forced to work for the minimum wage at jobs that don’t pay the rent, and then made to feel worthless on account of their inability to speak their own language, feed their families, or make sure their children attend school. Race and nationality are powerful markers of identity – but so, too, is socio-economic status. So is class.
The ultimate irony of a radical Māori nationalist push for a republic would be an answering surge towards monarchical institutions. A Māori-Pakeha alliance forged between members of the Professional-Managerial Class in pursuit of a radically identarian republic may yet find itself opposed by a Māori-Pakeha alliance embracing all social classes and dedicated to installing not one, but two, monarchs over New Zealand. Their unifying slogan, harking all the way back to the formation of the Kingitanga in the 1850s, could well be: “King Charles III in his place, King Tuheitia in his, and the Treaty of Waitangi over them both.”
It is not difficult to imagine the said King Charles, and King Tuheitia, at Turangawaewae, jointly signing a new covenant, in which the common rights and privileges of all New Zealanders, and the resources and treasures of both its peoples, are reaffirmed, protected and guaranteed by the two Crowns, and the democratically elected bi-cameral parliament, of the dual monarchy of Aotearoa-New Zealand.
The radical, Māori nationalist drive towards a te Tiriti-driven, identarian republican constitution, written to advance the interests of both the Māori and the Pakeha members of the Professional-Managerial Class, may end up driving the traditional defenders of capitalism, liberal democracy, and the rights and aspirations of working people, into a set of constitutional arrangements as odd as they are innovative.
Radical, identarian republicanism may yet make royalists of us all.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 15 September 2022.