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Wednesday 14 April 2010

Whose Republic?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 18th January 2010

Why is it that LGBT Australians and New Zealanders show solittle interest in the perennial debate over the respective merits of a republic or constitutional monarchy?

Perhaps it may be due to the narrow framing of the debate, which goes something like this. Even given that the British monarchy is a constitutional figurehead which has had no real power since the English Civil War of the seventeenth century, it is still a hereditary office. Until recently, it was also a sexist one, although firstborn older princesses can take precedence over their younger male siblings now. And even given the aesthetic merits of Princes William and Harry, do we really need a remote unelected figurehead twelve thousand miles away from New Zealand acting as our head of state? Wouldn't it be better to have an elected presidency?

Some might respond yes, but what does this have to do with us? Well, is the British monarchy a particularly representative institution insofar as we are concerned? Arguably not. After all, if a future scion of the House of Windsor turned out to be lesbian or gay, would she or he be able to have a royal civil partnership or same-sex marriage proper, if Britain has moved on to that stage in the intermediate future?

Granted yes, there have been lesbian and gay royals- William II, Richard I, Edward II, James VI/I, William III and Mary II and Anne. However, apart from the latter three, none of them were particularly competent rulers and attracted opprobrium in the cases of Edward II and James VI/I because of their wastrel favourites.

Indeed, in the case of Edward II, Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, the cuckolded Queen Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, held a rebellion, deposed him and had him killed through a red-hot poker to the anus. In the case of James VI/I, Robert Carr and George Villiers attracted criticism because they were financially demanding. However, when it came to William III, William Bentick, Earl of Rutland was a devoted subject and trusted advisor. When William III died after a hunting accident in 1702, Bentinck was grief-stricken. Liselotte, the Duchess of Orleans, commented favourably about the quality of this lover, compared to her own French gay royal husband's own. As for Queen Anne, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough was a similarly devoted and loyal companion, although jealousy could and did occur in the case of one Abigail Masham.

Apart from those LGBT royals, there have been some intriguing cadet scandals over the centuries too. Prince Albert Edward, eldest son of the future Edward VII, got caught in the infamous Cleveland Street rent boy scandal of the 1880s, while Prince George of Kent, one of the offspring of Edward VII, also preferred men. However, all of the above were hereditary recipients of aristocratic pedigree and not selected on the basis of merit. Moreover, even if their lovers were as devoted as Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough or William Bentinck, they could not be their official royal consort as a heterosexual queen or prince consort could. Therefore, why should we support a heterosexist, discriminatory institution out of step with contemporary liberal, pluralist, secular and democratic New Zealand values, where LGBT social equality is otherwise recognised?

Would a republic be any better? In answering this, I am sidelining the United States, given that it lacks a comprehensive welfare and public health system and is disproportionately religious compared to much of the rest of the western world. In any case, there is also the example of Iceland, which recently elected popular former centre-left social services minister Johanna Sigursdottir as the world's first elected lesbian president. All well and good, some might respond, but what about our own Maryann Street or Grant Robertson? Might they not eventually become Labour leaders and eventual Prime Ministers? Perhaps, but that hasn't happened yet.

In any case, what about the sequence of constitutional reform? Isn't it the case that New Zealand needs a written constitution like Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms to provide strengthened protections for our human rights and civil liberties? Yes, which is why LGBT and progressive debates about constitutional reform usually bog down in 'egg and chicken' details like that.

Unfortunately, sentiment, inertia and nostalgia mean that Elizabeth II will probably remain our unelected head of state until she passes away. Even given his admirable multiculturalism and deep green environmental credentials, though, should we not have a referendum after her passage to decide whether or not we want her hereditary successor or a directly elected president to replace her?

Craig Young - 18th January 2010

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