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There’s nothing more absurd to Peter Hamilton than the thought of the future King Charles III becoming our head of state.
The idea of Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, as our queen comes pretty close.
The British monarchy with its class system, hereditary titles and expensive lifestyles at an exorbitant cost to British citizens doesn’t sit at all well with Hamilton and, he’s quite sure, a growing number of Kiwis.
No no no, it won’t do at all. We should wave a royal goodbye to the Windsors and become a republic, he says.
New Zealand monarchists will be choking on their Darjeeling at Hamilton’s ideas for the future of Aotearoa as a republic.
He says it’s rather freeing to be able to promote his pro-republican views.
Hamilton, former deputy secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and a retired diplomat, has spent his entire career being the voice of his government.
Personal views should be kept just that. Personal.
In his memoir, New Moons For Sam, Becoming Kiwi – Life of a New Zealand Diplomat, published on October 15, Hamilton meanders through his life, from a childhood lived in the bucolic pastures of England to his family’s immigration to New Zealand and a career indulging his wanderlust as a diplomat.
His republican views make up just one chapter of the book – the title of which refers in part to his grandmother’s nickname for him, but are the biggest talking point.
It’s such an odd thing for modern-day New Zealand to be represented by the remnants of the British imperial aristocracy, he says from a locked-down Auckland.
“The extended royal family is an amazing array of hierarchies and titles and people involved at a vast expense living very comfortably in marvellous palaces. New Zealand has absolutely no connection with that at all. It has no relevance to us.”
Charles might come here and comment on our conservation efforts, but it’s very odd to think he might come here and open our Parliament. Why should a British aristocrat continue to do that, he asks.
“And I cannot imagine anything more odd than having Camilla as Queen of New Zealand. She has absolutely no connection with this country.”
He respects the Queen and her years of service. She’s done a great job with the Commonwealth, he says.
“Her family is all very photogenic and very nice, with some oddities like Andrew, but the fact that this family should represent New Zealand internationally and domestically is very odd in this current state of New Zealand’s own progress and development as an independent sovereign nation confident in itself.”
Hamilton is on the executive of the New Zealand Republic. He doesn’t overstate his affiliation to the group, but he’s keen to speak out nevertheless.
He has a lot to say about becoming a republic. When the tap is turned on, it’s on full bore.
Hamilton, 70, may well have inherited his egalitarian instincts from his mother, who refused to curtsy to Lord St Audries, on whose land (featured in the Domesday Book) they lived as an extended family in Somerset, south-west England.
His childhood was entrenched in a very British background of comfortable church and state.
It was a charmed life to an extent, though blighted somewhat by a deep rift between his father and his father’s parents. That feud led to his family upping sticks and going about as far away as is possible to go, settling in New Zealand.
When he came here in 1961 it was a country that was still quite British in many ways, although it was starting to establish its own national identity.
The generation he encountered as a teenager in New Zealand was beginning to question the old allegiances and alliances, he says.
After his secondary school years at Hamilton Boys’ High, he briefly considered the navy for a life of travel but didn’t like the idea of being a soldier on water.
He spent a year working at a school in Tonga during his VSA stint at age 17, and taught at a college for a year on his return. A career as a teacher was short-lived, though.
At Auckland University he studied Middle High German. A year’s exchange on a scholarship inspired him to join Foreign Affairs on his return and so followed a life as a career diplomat.
His journey with MFAT took him to postings in Fiji, Canada, Switzerland, Samoa, Germany, Singapore and the Maldives, rising to the highest rank of ambassador/high commissioner and, in the winter of his career, to deputy secretary of MFAT.
He worked in the economic and trade division, starting out in aviation and fisheries, the latter being an ironic focus given he hasn’t been able to eat seafood since a schoolmate vomited up his fish and chips on him (it was an arduous explanation to a Russian ambassador years later why he couldn’t down his caviar).
New Zealand’s reputation was highly regarded by those countries he was posted to, he says. We “punch above our weight”.
“We can see the bigger picture globally that many countries caught in the intricate detail of the issues can’t. Often we are seen as a positive contributor to global dialogues.”
Completing New Zealand’s second free trade agreement with Singapore was one of his biggest achievements in his long career developing trade agreements.
“For a guy who had an MA in Middle High German to be involved in that sort of important economic and important trade work for NZ was challenging and satisfying.”
It set the stage for a lot of other larger and more important agreements with China and the Pacific trade partnership.
His diplomatic postings brought him into contact with many countries’ leaders.
President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, a young reformer who survived an assassination attempt, is to be admired. As is Germany’s outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, wherever you stand in the political divide, he says.
He’s still diplomatic when asked about the trickiest customers he’s met over the years. Some Fijian leaders following various coups presented a challenge.
On home turf he’s less diplomatic.
He has plenty to say of former Foreign Affairs minister Murray McCully in his memoir (not a fan).
Sir John Key, who brought back knighthoods while prime minister, should have excused himself from receiving one.
These days his focus is on other things, like his family. He has three children and three grandchildren.
He also has the time and the freedom to pursue the push for Aotearoa as a republic.
During the six postings over a 30-plus year career as a diplomat, many of the people he met could not understand why a British monarch was New Zealand’s head of state because many of their countries were former colonies themselves and had long ago changed their systems to have their own heads of state, he says.
“It was a legacy you carried with you where you had to explain to people something that many of them found completely incomprehensible.
“In Germany they assumed we were very British because the Queen was our head of state and that our foreign policy was British in the way we saw the world, such as the approach to the war in Iraq – that we would follow the British line.”
Hamilton’s view is that the office of the governor-general should be transformed into the head of state. It’s a symbolic move and an establishment of our identity becoming a republic, rather than a political move.
One of the concerns people have is that a move to being a republic would mean we would need a president, he says.
We’re not talking about a president like Donald Trump who was head of the government and the state. He favours the Samoan example, where the roles are separate.
Barbados is en route to becoming a republic while retaining its Commonwealth status.
New Zealand would not have to leave the Commonwealth if we became a republic, he says.
“The British royal family could still come as head of the Commonwealth. Charles could still come as King Charles III and be greeted by his equivalent head of state in New Zealand.”
And while we’re talking a republic, we should change our national anthem, he says. Modernise that too.
While Aotearoa is mature, sophisticated and sovereign enough country to have its own head of state, he understands there are far more pressing issues New Zealanders need to grapple with right now – Covid, housing, social disparities.
“People are never going to get excited about this. It’s not something that grabs people’s imagination for the most part, but it is part of the architecture of us as a nation.
“It’s the last piece of the jigsaw that needs to be fitted in.”
New Moons for Sam: Becoming Kiwi – Life of a New Zealand Diplomat, by Peter Hamilton, is published on October 15 (Mawhitipana Publishing), $40.