Although New Zealand media provided coverage of royalty, commitment to royalty began to wane in the later 20th century. The central constitutional role played within New Zealand government by the monarch or governor-general continued, but the royal family itself became less important.
Government and royalty
Political support for the royal family was not related to political party membership. Both a National and a Labour prime minister openly supported republicanism in the 1990s and 2000s. National Prime Minister Jim Bolger’s preference for a republic was sometimes attributed to his Irish heritage. When Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark went to Britain for the first time as prime minister, she did not meet the queen. This was a working visit and a formal meeting with the sovereign was not seen as necessary.
As the royal family’s ordinary foibles and behaviour were exposed – affairs, divorces and drunken high jinks – respect lessened. At its most extreme, expressed in the popular women’s magazines, the royal family was reduced to an aristocratic version of a television soap opera.
Queen Elizabeth II was largely exempt from this loss of respect. She continued to be widely seen as an admirable figure, reliably dignified and gracious.
Republicanism has been part of the New Zealand political landscape since European settlement. Among the migrants were many who believed the royal family had had their day, especially among the Irish community; and once in New Zealand some argued for a republic.
Republicans in 19th-century New Zealand were admired by some and detested by others. John Robinson, elected superintendent of Nelson from 1857 to 1865, was known to be ‘a bloody-minded Red Republican’, but won three elections. 1 Samuel Lister, who argued that the queen was expensive and useless, published a radical newspaper in Dunedin from 1887. He was loathed by many among the respectable middle class, but his Otago Workman could claim a larger readership than any other paper in town.
After dying down in the late 19th and 20th century, debate revived in the 1960s. The Republican Association of New Zealand was started in 1966, and the New Zealand Republican Party in 1967. Articles arguing for a republic began appearing in left-wing journals and newspapers. Bruce Jesson, a founding member of both the association and the party, published The Republican, a newsletter, from 1974 to 1988.
Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand, set up in 1994, argued that a democratically elected New Zealander should be the nation’s head of state. The group encouraged debate through its website and press releases, submissions to government, policy papers and participation in conferences and seminars. The case for a republic and a Māori perspective on republicanism was spelt out in a 1997 publication New Zealand Republic.
An equally committed royalist group, the Monarchist League, was formed in 1995. From 2010 it was known as Monarchy New Zealand. It supported New Zealand’s existing form of government – constitutional monarchy. It sought to increase interest in, and understanding of, the value of the monarchy.
Both monarchist and republican groups drew members in small numbers from across the political spectrum. They were probably the most interested readers of each other’s websites, where they debated issues like the cost of the governor-general compared with that of a president.
Generally, New Zealanders’ feelings about republicanism were lukewarm. In part this was because of the respect still felt for Queen Elizabeth II. There was also a sense that the monarchy was useful and the alternatives uncertain.
This lack of interest in republicanism is sometimes attributed to the relatively few Irish migrants to New Zealand. A comparison is often made with Australia, where the push for republicanism is more vigorous and where there are far more people of Irish descent in the population.