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Changing Face of the Monarchy

Issue date: 
Saturday, 1 July 2017

The late Gavin McLean, former Senior Historian with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, looks at Queen Elizabeth's reign. 

The ‘Royal Summer’ of 1953-54 marked the highpoint of public enthusiasm for the monarchy – for several reasons.

Thanks to high commodity prices, New Zealanders were emerging from the austerity of the Depression, wartime rationing and the divisions of the 1951 waterfront dispute. They were looking for things to celebrate. The war and the late King’s health had torpedoed planned royal tours in 1940, 1949 and 1952, so by 1953 Kiwis were very keen to see the young Queen and her handsome consort, both of whom projected movie-star glamour. Relatively few celebrities visited New Zealand in the pre-jet era, so Kiwis made the most of seeing their exotic visitors – and in many cases, of making a bit of a sartorial splash themselves. Commentators spoke of a ‘New Elizabethan Age’.

Jock Phillips noted that ‘organised opposition or criticism was conspicuously lacking.’ The Communist People’s Voice limited its criticism to the amount of money spent on decorations, not on the Queen herself. Most controversy was about being left off the tour schedule.

More frequent visits by the Queen and other members of her family from the 1960s onwards probably reduced some of royalty's mystique. At the same time the media – television from the early 1960s as well as print – may have also made the formerly exotic more familiar. The Queen continued to appear on coins and – less frequently – on postage stamps, but people turned out in smaller numbers to see royalty and its vice-regal proxies.

The Queen's silver jubilee in 1977 was marked in New Zealand by an official publication, Thirteen Facets (published in 1978). Prime Minister Rob Muldoon wrote in the preface: ‘At an earlier period, perhaps a century ago, my predecessor in office would have sought to lay this volume humbly at the foot of the Throne as an expression of loyalty and devotion of a fragment of Empire. Today we do not use quite the same language … but I believe we are just as loyal.’

Despite that loyalty, social tensions increased from the 1960s: young people protested about the Vietnam War and other issues and Māori re-evaluated their attitudes to the Treaty of Waitangi. In 1983 Dun Mihaka performed a whakapohane (‘one bum salute’) to the Prince and Princess of Wales; three years later eggs were thrown at the Queen. In 1990 a protester threw a t-shirt at the Queen as she arrived at Waitangi. Sometimes, too, the royal family did not help itself when, as David Lange put it, ‘the royal extras … confused their roles with those of soap opera.'

In 2002 a public opinion poll showed that 58% of Kiwis felt that the monarchy had little or no relevance to their daily lives. Yet the intense public interest in Prince William's visits to New Zealand in 2010 and 2011, and his marriage to Kate Middleton in 2011, suggest that royalty retains its allure and glamour. At the same time, the Queen enjoys warm and wide respect, and polls show that the majority of New Zealanders support her continued role as head of state.

Last updated: 
Saturday, 1 July 2017

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