The royal family may be fêted on their visits to New Zealand and Australia or the Pacific Islands, but do they have any meaningful role in the region? A conference held at the New Zealand parliament on 22nd May looked at ‘Constitutional Monarchy in the Commonwealth Realms: Opportunities in Common’. The idea of ‘opportunities in common’ suggested scope for enhanced connections between the monarchy and the Pacific realms, including New Zealand, Australia and Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu and Solomon Islands.
Yet even as regards the United Kingdom, those seeking such ‘opportunities in common’ are likely to be frustrated. The recent release of the so-called ‘Black Spider’ letters of 2004-5 exposed Prince Charles lobbying the British government on matters such as alternative herbal medicines and the need for ministers to prioritize action against the illegal fishing of the Patagonian toothfish. In 2004-5, Britain’s elected politicians, including Tony Blair, were not simply ready to listen to, but to welcome and encourage, the Prince’s hectoring counsels. The British government subsequently tightened the Freedom of Information Act (via the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Act) so as to provide ‘absolute exemption’ on requests relating to government communications with the throne. So, if there be ‘opportunities in common’ sought by the Queen or her heirs, these will largely be explored behind closed doors, and not subject to deliberation at conferences like that on 22nd May in New Zealand’s parliament.
In controversies over apartheid in South Africa with Edward Heath and later Margaret Thatcher and in the negotiations that led to Zimbabwe’s independence, the Queen was able to use the Commonwealth as a means for pursuing a more independent foreign policy. The multiple Queen ideology – in which the monarch acts not simply as ‘Queen of England’, but also separately ‘Queen of New Zealand’, Australia, Canada, and the other realms, has been used to acquire an independence from, and unaccountability to, any one government. The monarchy has sought to reinvent itself as a transnational institution.
Pacific Island states' links with the Crown are often thought to play a largely ‘symbolic’ role. The British monarchy’s official website describes its own relations with Tuvalu, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands in such terms.
Yet the Queen appoints Governors-General for these three Pacific Island states, though acting on advice, and did so in Fiji until that country became a Republic in October 1987. All four countries have witnessed constitutional crises in which the Governor-General has played an important (if often controversial) role.
Where Prime Ministers have lost their parliamentary majorities, but seek to avoid ‘no confidence’ challenges by delaying sittings of parliament, exercise of ‘deliberate judgment’ by the Governor-General has been constitutionally required (e.g. Tuvalu 2013, Solomon Islands 1994).
Governors-General have made controversial decisions regarding the appointment of Prime Ministers (e.g. Fiji 1977) and have been required to implement difficult court rulings on the constitutionality of governments (e.g. Papua New Guinea 2011). The Queen famously fought with then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher not only over South Africa, but also over Fiji where the Palace persuaded the then Governor-General to stand down in the wake of the 1987 coup. He was Fiji’s last Governor-General.
The handling of communications regarding these crises by the Queen, the details of which are kept secret, does not appear to have been greatly effective. In the wake of a May 2012 court decision ruling the Papua New Guinea government unconstitutional, Governor-General Michael Ogio travelled to London for the Queen’s birthday celebrations rather than attending to urgent matters at home, or making sensible comment on these critical affairs of state. Instead, the Speaker Jeffrey Nape stepped in as the ‘acting’ representative of the Head of State. He was subsequently arrested on charges of corruption.
The possibility of a directly elected Head of State or hybrid presidential arrangements, as in Kiribati or the autonomous region of Bougainville, has been an issue of debate in Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu and Fiji.
Particularly in the highly heterogeneous societies of Melanesia, enhancing the mechanisms of domestic accountability of those acting as, or on behalf of, the Head of State is much more likely to attract future attention than the notion of ‘opportunities in common’ or the curious and anachronistic idea that the British Queen can serve as a ‘symbol of the unity and identity’ of the Pacific nations.
This is an abridged version of a talk given by the author at Constitutional Monarchy in the Commonwealth Realms: Opportunities in Common 21 - 23 May 2015, Parliament Buildings, Wellington, New Zealand.
Jon Fraenkel is a Professor of Comparative Politics at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the Pacific Islands correspondent for The Economist.
Photo Credit: Commonwealth Youth