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.
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.”
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”.
‘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.”