Thursday, October 7, 2010

October Political Commentary (2): Reserve Power

Nowadays people are inclined to believe that democracy is for the people and by the people, yet the earlier forms of democracy has always been a tool of the elites against the monarchy and the general population. (See Magna Carta) As a part of deal, the head of state retained rights to veto certain bills and (more in a ceremonial sense) dissolve the parliament.

Franchise was gradually extended from the aristocracy to the landed gentry, then to every tax-paying man and finally every able-minded adult. Strangely back then many liberal politicians opposed the idea of universal (male franchise), particularly in France, because their fears that the uneducated masses are uncapable of exercising political power and may, in their worse fear, elect a royalist that will end their privileged position once and for all. At the same time, the power of the monarchy was constantly eroded by the state. There is a partticularly sharp decline since the Napoleonic Wars when the Georges might have had some influence on governments, Queen Victoria delibrately refrained from politics during her later life, and the underprepared Uncle Edward was more interested in diplomacy than domestic affairs. Prime Minister could go as far as requesting the head of Balmoral castle to appoint more Peers to the House of Lords in order to pass certain laws. The only king to have rebelled against the role of glorified rubber stamp is Edward VII, and the government promptly got rid of him. (Wallis Simpson is just an excuse, they could have used his sympathy to facism or any other excuse on a later date)

Constitutional Monarchy implies that the country is ultimately governed by a constitution, of which New Zealand is definitely lacking. Apart from the ceremonial roles generally afforded to the Queen, the functions of Governor-General include:

  • Officially dissolve and open the parliament at the request of the Government, as well as appointing ministers including the PM
  • Grant Royal Assent to new laws.
By convention the Governor-General acts at the advice (emphemism for explicit instructions) of the ruling government, nevertheless he is not bound by any rule to obey. Such incident were known as "constitutional crises" where nobody knows what to do.

There is also the problem of overlapping between the legislative and executive wing in the Westminster system. In other words, the government consists of serving MPs and nearly always control the parliament. The situation is even more extreme in NZ without an upper house to check the power of proportionally elected representatives. Hence the reserve power is at the same time a good measure and equally useless.

Overall, the reserve power at the hands of the Governor-General is vague and limited at best.  The viceregal role seems to be entirely vestigial and out of place. I bet many of us were not even aware of our current Governor-General before the debate erupted.

So, who is Anand Satyanand?