The ‘Crown’ in New Zealand is often seen as an essential partner in the Treaty of Waitangi relationship between Maori and the government, yet as some legal commentators have noted, the Crown itself is a ‘legal ﬁction’ and a ‘shape-shifting’ symbol whose deﬁnition is obtuse and whose meanings vary according to context. This article reports on an ethnographic study that examines how the concept of the Crown is understood and contested in New Zealand. It also examines the different ways in which the Crown as a political, legal and symbolic entity shapes policy and practice. We ask, what exactly is the Crown, how is it imagined and personified, when and why is the discourse of the Crown used, and what are the implications of its continual usage? We argue that the Crown is an imagined yet extraordinarily powerful entity that represents more than simply a proxy for the New Zealand state. It needs to be deconstructed in order to shed light on the symbolic and discursive work it performs in maintaining New Zealand’s political and constitutional order. We also outline some of the key findings of our pilot study and suggest future directions for research.The authors argue that
The Crown lies at the heart of New Zealand’s constitutional order and is often presented as an essential partner in the Treaty of Waitangi relationship yet, as former Attorney-General Margaret Wilson notes, ‘it is also a useful ﬁction that enables government to distance themselves from direct responsibility for obligations under the Treaty.’ The implications of this contradiction are profound yet have rarely been explored: how can the Crown be both a core Treaty signatory and a ‘useful fiction?’ Legal scholars recognise that the Crown, as a metonym for government and the state, is a ‘shapeshifting symbol’, an abstract entity that historically embodied the British Empire but today serves as a compendious cloak for aligning archaic rules, ceremonies and meanings with the trappings of contemporary governmental authority. But if the Crown ‘has different meanings according to context,’ as even the Supreme Court of New Zealand now acknowledges, what exactly are those meanings and how does the Crown manifest itself in different contexts? How does this ambiguity affect those who deal with the Crown – either as plaintiffs or as officials – in its different guises? Perhaps more importantly, what does the shapeshifting nature of the Crown tell us about the character of the state in New Zealand and the practice (or art) of government? Despite major interest in the Crown as a legal concept in New Zealand, to date very little attention has been paid to how the Crown is personiﬁed and embodied or to its symbolic and semiotic character; that is, to the Crown as a cultural entity and social institution.
This article sets out to address these questions and ﬁll that lacuna by examining how the concept of the Crown is understood and contested in New Zealand. In doing so, we report on an ethnographically informed pilot study carried out in 2012 involving both personal observations and in-depth interviews with Crown officials, legal and constitutional experts, politicians and Maori leaders. Our primary aim was to examine the different meanings that the Crown holds for legal and political elites in New Zealand; i.e., to understand how they imagine the Crown and the implications of these imaginaries. We also sought to analyse the different ways in which the rhetoric of the Crown is used to buttress authority, legitimize decision-making, and shape policy and practice.
That interest was piqued by our observations of the curious and sometimes contradictory ways in which government ministers invoke ‘the Crown’ in their political oratory and public pronouncements. Sometimes ministers will speak to an issue of public policy as members of Parliament, the ruling National Party, the government, and as ‘the Crown’ itself – often oscillating between all four registers. This raises the question ‘what exactly is the Crown’ and when is that term used (or not used) in political and legal discourse? As we discovered, the Crown in New Zealand is typically taken for granted and treated as a given that requires little or no explanation. We therefore set out to deconstruct the Crown in order to shed light on its symbolic meanings and the discursive work that it performs in maintaining New Zealand’s political and constitutional order. Our argument is presented in four parts. First, we outline the methodology used in our study, the rationale for the research and the anthropological issues it raises. Our hypothesis is that the Crown, as proxy for state authority, provides a useful optic for understanding the changing nature of the state and nation in New Zealand, and may have significance for other post-colonial societies as well. Second, we ask, how should we conceptualise the Crown, how is it perceived, and why is deﬁning and locating it problematic? Third, we draw on our ﬁeldwork interviews and observations to examine people’s understanding and experience of the Crown. We also examine some of the contradictory ways in which the Crown is made visible in New Zealand, how these different representations are interpreted and what they symbolize. Finally, we consider some of the ways in which the concept of the Crown is put to work in New Zealand public discourse – and with what implications.