Tomorrow at midnight we lose an important link with Britain and the colonial past. Any court hearing unfinished then cannot be appealed to the judicial committee of the Privy Council.
It is a landmark event to end the year, historically, constitutionally and symbolically. It is far more important than ministers conceded. They alleged it was just a change in the court structure and denied us, the people, a say by way of referendum.
But National’s shadow ministers were no better. The kind interpretation of their promise to sack the court and ask the Brits to reinstate appeals is that spokesperson Richard Worth’s roguish wit got the better of him. Conjure in your mind’s-eye a knee-breeched, periwigged Worth on bended knee beseeching the Queen — for, forsooth, that’s whose council the Privy Council is — to restore her favour to an errant child of empire.
Then marvel that Worth’s then leader, Bill English, went along with him. English is Irish by descent and goes into some dudgeon at any suggestion he may be British. But English is so Irish he calls himself English. Which may explain a lot.
United Future ducked. Judicial spokesperson Murray Smith spent more than half his second reading speech on Margaret Wilson’s Supreme Court Bill on why appeals had to go but then said his party would nonetheless oppose it because more debate was needed and big business was uneasy.
New Zealand First turned into a cross between Britain First and Aotearoa First, sometimes backing National and sometimes those traditional Maori who still saw in the Privy Council a privileged Treaty of Waitangi link with the Crown.
ACT indulged in one of its pastimes, manipulative fear-mongering: the ending of appeals would lead post-haste to a “socialist republic of Aotearoa”, ushered in by Wilson’s handpicked judges of her new Supreme Court.
Wilson did what the Prime Minister and she had long telegraphed: she appointed the senior Appeal Court judges to join Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias. Not a lot of socialist republicans or republican socialists in that lot.
But Act got the reaction it wanted in talkbackland and even in some parts of the general media: a frenzy in the last few days before the bill passed.
How come Act could whip up such a froth?
A clue is in a little book, Crowded Lives, published this year by an Australian Labor federal frontbencher, Lindsay Tanner: “As a person of British origin, with numerous British relatives and a deep love of British history and culture, I don’t believe that establishing a truly unique Australian identity should be done at the expense of our deep and enduring links with Britain,” Tanner wrote.
That could have been written for this country. So could this: “Movements to change our national identity and symbols — such as the campaigns for a new flag and a republic — have struggled because they’ve been built more on repudiating our past than imagining our future.”
And this, Tanner said and Act demonstrated, undermines the ethnic British majority’s fragile sense of identity. “Reactionary opponents of change,” he wrote, “have zeroed in on the widespread sense among many Australians that they are under attack for being who and what they are.”
Well, who and what are we in this country? Our national symbols speak volumes about who and what we are not.
We have someone else’s head of state — a monarch, in a country which (sentiment and formal procedures apart) is republican in practice.
We have someone else’s flag, the Union Jack, marked with the Southern Cross, which Australia also flies.
We have somewhere else’s name, borrowed from a maritime district in Holland.
All three are relics of European “discovery” and British rule.
Our home-grown symbols are no more encouraging. Our national emblem is an anomaly, a flightless bird. Our national anthem, which urges us to leave everything to God, is no clarion call to inventiveness, energy and courage.
But there is no popular urge to change any of these. Why?
The answer must lie in our inability so far to “imagine our future”.
We are uncertain how to accommodate indigenous practices in a modern secular society. This goes to the core of national identity because it affects the power structure, belief systems and conduct of much of our public and, increasingly, private life. This year has been a standout year on that issue.
We are also adrift in uncertainty about our economic place in the world and about our relationship with old allies and the majority’s Anglo kin.
Uncertain people cannot imagine a future. Uncertain people hover in the past.
But the past is no more recoverable in this society now than the future is yet imaginable. That is at the root of many of our arguments. It has fallen to these generations now living to begin the traverse from past to future. The Privy Council’s passing is one small uncertain step.
* Footnote: a late addition to my list of very good things in 2003: Schoc’s frankincense, myrrh and gold chocolate. Magic from Greytown.