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Chris Ford: Vive La Republica! Is John Key desperate for a Prince William and Prince Kate royal visit?

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

I remember at around this time in 1981 that Rob Muldoon was pretty electorally desperate. He was facing a very difficult re-election campaign where he was hoping to secure a third term.

Muldoon was really up against the wall around September/October 1981. The Springbok Tour had left huge divisions within New Zealand society. The economy was in a parlous state with increasing unemployment, inflation, overseas debts and trade deficits all impinging on the National Government's popularity. Muldoon, due to the tour, had become an international pariah, particularly with the Commonwealth.

Muldoon was sure in need of a tonic.

That tonic came in the form of a royal visit from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in October 1981, only a month before the nation went to the polls that year. This timing, controlled jointly by the Beehive and Buckingham Palace, suited Muldoon well.

Back then (as much as now) the monarchy's popularity was huge as in nearly 90% support. The wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in July of that year had caused the monarchy's popularity to reach these giddy heights. In fact, Muldoon made the wedding a key highlight of his last pre-election global tour in mid-1981, one which included a difficult Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) conference. More importantly, the wedding of Elizabeth's heir also afforded Muldoon an escape from the tumult of the Springbok Tour at home.

Hence, Muldoon had much to thank Liz and Phil for by the time that they came to New Zealand, including the fact that their son and new daughter-in-law created some very useful headlines on their wedding day as it was the same day that anti-tour protesters almost succeeded in storming Parliament.

Incidentally, the Queen's visit that year saw me come as close to her and Prince Philip - and Muldoon - as I ever did and ever will get. I was in the Octagon crowd that greeted them during their Dunedin visit in early October 1981. I have a distinct memory of Muldoon smugly strolling behind the couple in a city that was otherwise hostile territory for the Nats - and still proved to be that year.

But the most important point is that Muldoon and National, based on the strategic placement of Springbok games by the Rugby Union and, perhaps in part, on the places where the Sovereign and her Consort visited, very narrowly took out that year's General Election.

So, as history shows, you can't dismiss entirely the electoral value of a royal visit.

This point hasn't been lost on John Key who hopes to be hosting the hugely popular grandson and grandaughter-in-law of the Queen and Duke, namely, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge. This will be in another year in which his own National Government is facing an extremely difficult and potentially close electoral contest in the hopes of grasping a third term.

Like Muldoon, Key will be looking for one long, distracting photo opportunity as he accompanies the royal couple to electorally crucial areas like Auckland, Christchurch and more than a few provincial areas that, funnily enough, will be crucial to National's chances.

Furthermore, the royal tour will be slavishly covered by the corporate media, thereby enabling a great weapon of mass distraction to be deployed as the first extra gambling machines are installed at Sky City, as the first of thousands of posties are laid off, as the first few thousand disabled and sick people are hauled before WINZ-contracted assessors to be kicked off benefits, as the first charter schools with unqualified teachers open their doors, and also as John Banks likely goes on trial for electoral disclosure offences. Amidst all this, Wills and Kate will magically appear and wish all National and their coalition partners problems away - or almost, anyway, at least for the duration of their visit!

That's why I can't wait for New Zealand to hold a referendum when the Queen dies, as the Labour Party conference voted at the weekend, on the future of our monarchy. The Sovereign's office is a politicised and political one - to pretend otherwise would be foolish as it's part of our constitutional furniture. New Zealand Prime Ministers have used royal tours to bolster their parties electoral fortunes since time immemorial. If we were to transition to a republic though we would have our own head of state and he or she would still be able to invite the Royal Family as we would likely (even as a republic) remain within the Commonwealth. There would be one proviso though - any royals would have to restrict their appearances here to non-general election years. And they wouldn't be able to prance around the country as much as we would have our own president or prime minister to do that instead.

While a republic will take a fair while to achieve in Aotearoa/New Zealand, when it happens (as it will one day do) we will be able to dictate when the British Royal Family comes and goes.

 

 

 

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