Apathy in New Zealand – but little desire for change – as King Charles’s reign begins

Despite an apparent indifference to the new king, New Zealand also seems to have no real appetite to sever ties with the crown

Outside a corner store in suburban Wellington, a small chalkboard announced the news amid the ice-cream specials. “Queen has Died,” it read. The photograph, circulated on New Zealand social media, encapsulated the country’s understated, matter-of-fact response to its longtime monarch’s passing.

As 21 gunshots echoed across Wellington’s harbour on Sunday, a few hundred had gathered on New Zealand parliament’s grassy lawns for the formal pronouncement of their new king. The crowd was sparse, in relative terms: the size one might expect outside parliament for a high-profile petition, and around a tenth of the number that gathered to grieve at a vigil for George Floyd. At the gates of the British High Commission, a few lonely bunches of flowers rested.

Even as the front pages and primetime were dominated by news of the head of state’s passing, the death of Queen Elizabeth II and transfer of power to King Charles III did not unleash outpourings of grief or emotion. Perhaps the most ostentatious display came from a talkshow host, who paused for a single, audible sob before continuing with the morning broadcast.

Six bunches of flowers resting against a gate
A small number of floral tribute bouquets to mark the death of the Queen lie at the gates of the British High Commission in Wellington, New Zealand. Photograph: Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images

Tributes to Queen Elizabeth – who was broadly well-liked and respected – may have been tempered by a more ambivalent response to the new king, as well as growing public awareness of the crown’s violent colonial history.

But those reservations don’t herald appetite for constitutional change. In her brief remarks on parliament’s steps on Sunday, a sombre Jacinda Ardern said she believed the relationship with the monarchy would “deepen” under King Charles – placing the country on a different trajectory to a number of others in the commonwealth, whose leaders have informed the monarchy of their intention to move toward independence.

On Monday, Ardern reaffirmed she wouldn’t take any imminent steps to take New Zealand toward a republic. “I do believe that is where New Zealand will head, in time,” she said. “But I don’t see it as a short-term measure or anything that is on the agenda anytime soon.”

Queen and Prince in back of a black car in front of huge cheering crowd
The Queen and Prince Philip touring New Zealand in 1953. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wrestling with a complex colonial legacy

This week’s muted display bore a sharp contrast to Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953 visit, when New Zealanders packed bunting-lined streets, waving British flags and proffering flowers. Historian prof Katie Pickles, of the University of Canterbury, says around three out of every four New Zealanders attended. “It was this massive, astonishing turnout,” Pickles says, “this high point of New Zealand royalism.”

Today, the crown’s legacy in New Zealand is seen in a more complex light, as the country continues to wrestle with the violence of its colonial history. Before that same royal visit, Māori homes and marae [meeting houses] were razed to “clean up” the route of the Queen’s parade. In newspaper clippings, Ngāti Whātua boys watch as their homes are burned. The demolitions are part of a broader, painful lineage of land confiscations and abuses that New Zealand continues to reckon with, and negotiate reparations for.


“The monarchy has, in Māori terms, a whakapapa [genealogy] which includes all of the processes of colonisation, and warfare and of taking of land and extracting resources,” says Carwyn Jones, Pūkenga Matua [lead academic] of Māori law and philosophy at Te Wānanga o Raukawa. “There’s a real question as to whether the crown in its current form is able to [rectify those wrongs] effectively, or whether it actually is too bound up in the breach of those guarantees, and requires some dismantling in order to be able to properly fulfil the promises made.”

As a country, Aotearoa New Zealand grew up alongside the Queen, says Pickles. Her reign tracked alongside the country’s evolution from “a developing nation-state that was very much on the apron-strings of Britain … right through to a post-colonial, bicultural nation-state,” Pickles says. Now, at the end of her reign, it finds itself in very different territory.

The question of King Charles’s personal popularity in New Zealand is hard to untangle. The King has made nine, mostly uncontroversial visits over the years. Some were marked by protest – in 2005, he was greeted by topless protesters shouting “shame on colonisation”, and in 1995 attacked by a man with a can of air freshener. There were occasional moments of humour: a photograph of Charles smiling next to a New Zealander wearing an “I’m with stupid” T-shirt sold for $22,000 at auction in 2021. But it’s unclear whether those visits have developed the connection achieved by his mother.

“Because the Queen was so popular, it’s carried the relationship,” Pickles says. But the widely held respect and affection for Queen Elizabeth will not transfer automatically to her successor along with the crown. “These are very different times, and they [King Charles and his wife] are different people”.

Charles and Camilla wearing Māori cloaks
The then-Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall on a visit to the Waitangi Treaty grounds in 2019. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

‘If it’s working, leave it alone’

Despite the mixed legacy of the monarchy, New Zealand shows no sign of shrugging it off in pursuit of an independent constitution.

“I surmise it’s for the oldest reason of all: if it’s working, leave it alone,” says Jim Bolger, ex-prime minister of New Zealand. Bolger, who informed Queen Elizabeth on a yacht trip in the mid 1990s that he was convinced New Zealand would soon become a republic, now says Aotearoa is one of the most complacent of the devolved and commonwealth nations about the prospect of independence.

A February 2022 Newshub Reid Research poll asked: “When Queen Elizabeth is no longer Queen, should New Zealand break away from the Commonwealth and become a republic?” 48% said no, they would prefer to remain, and 36.4% yes. In practical terms, the head of state in New Zealand has little impact on the day-to-day workings of the country, and there’s correspondingly little appetite for constitutional upheaval.

But Bolger believes that changing head of state to King Charles could be enough to restart New Zealand’s republican conversation.

“It’s not a criticism of Charles,” Bolger says. “But you can’t have the seismic change that we’re having – after 70 years of Queen Elizabeth, to a new leader – without all these issues coming to the fore.

“People will be asking the question of whether it’s consistent with democratic thinking and principles that the birth of a child to a wealthy, aristocratic family in England should end up as the head of state in New Zealand.”


Tess McClure in Auckland

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘A brutal legacy’: Queen’s death met with anger as well as grief in Kenya
Politicians pay warm tributes but memories of colonial atrocities prompt fierce criticism too

Caroline Kimeu in Nyeri

12, Sep, 2022 @10:30 AM

Article image
King Charles’s ascension ignites debate over royals across Commonwealth
Head of state role in doubt in realms from Jamaica to New Zealand after death of Queen Elizabeth II

Patrick Wintour and Oliver Holmes

10, Sep, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Jacinda Ardern expects New Zealand’s royal ties to ‘deepen’ under King Charles III
New Zealand and Australia hold ceremonies to recognise new head of state and pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth II

Christine Kearney and Guardian staff

11, Sep, 2022 @5:06 AM

Article image
New Zealand MPs pay tribute to Queen mixed with sharp rebukes of colonial past
While all MPs offered condolences to the royal family, several also discussed the monarchy’s fraught and complex history

Tess McClure in Auckland

14, Sep, 2022 @1:52 AM

Article image
‘There hasn’t been closure’: India mourns Queen but awaits apology
In largest Commonwealth country, personal affection for Elizabeth II mingles with need for recognition of British colonial atrocities

Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Delhi

14, Sep, 2022 @11:21 AM

Article image
Revealed: King Charles’s private fortune estimated at £1.8bn
King’s fortune includes cars, jewellery, property, investments, horses, rare stamps, art and a hereditary estate

Cost of the crown team

20, Apr, 2023 @7:27 AM

Article image
Australia quietly mourns passing of an era with Queen’s death as thoughts turn to a republic
Elizabeth’s death and Charles’s ascension has Australia – at once an old and young country – questioning what sort of nation it is and wants to be

Ben Doherty

11, Sep, 2022 @10:23 AM

Article image
King Charles’s visit to France postponed amid protests
Emmanuel Macron says it would not have been ‘serious or good sense’ for next week’s visit to go ahead

Kim Willsher in Paris

24, Mar, 2023 @3:35 PM

Article image
New Zealand Māori party calls for a ‘divorce’ from Britain’s royal family
Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi said the move was ‘an opportunity to reimagine a more meaningful and fulfilling partnership’

Tess McClure in Auckland

07, Feb, 2022 @1:15 AM

Article image
‘Existential challenge’: King Charles calls for France-UK climate entente
Monarch says two countries have duty to protect democracy and ensure Ukraine’s triumph, in address to French senate

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

21, Sep, 2023 @3:57 PM