Contributing to New Zealand’s constitutional debate

19 November 2013
Professor Williams looks forward to more snow-filled days in Oxford

An innovative study drawing together two faculties of the University of Auckland has been awarded a $700,000 Marsden Fund grant for research which will help inform New Zealand’s continuing constitutional debate.

Professors Cris Shore from the Faculty of Arts and David V Williams from the Faculty of Law jointly applied for the funding in a collaborative project expected to inform the ongoing debate about whether or not New Zealand should become a republic.

A particular concern of the study is to understand the social, semantic and political significance that the Crown holds in the New Zealand national imagination, and the implications this has for social change and political reforms.

Professor Shore is a professor of social anthropology, while Professor Williams has extensive experience working on Treaty settlement processes.

Their study aims to analyse the complex, shifting and ambiguous meanings the Crown holds for iwi, the wider New Zealand public, and Crown officials themselves. It also involves comparative study into perceptions of the Crown in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

The research seeks answers to a raft of questions: How does the Crown represent itself? For whom is it useful and how? How do policy-makers use the Crown as a strategic and symbolic resource? Is the Crown, as a symbol of monarchy and colonialism, an obstacle to current constitutional reform?

“The results will lead to new understandings of the Crown as a socio-political institution and cultural entity, highlighting what is at stake for both citizens and power holders,” David says. “It will help inform ongoing debate about whether or not New Zealand should become a republic, for example.”

About 36 politicians, lawyers and Māori tribal leaders answered questions about the Crown for a pilot study prior to Professors Williams and Shore submitting an initial funding proposal.

David says the responses showed a huge range of different points-of-view and a lack of clarity about the key constitutional elements and the way our society puts them together. The Crown has not been comprehensively studied in interdisciplinary research, despite its importance and the wide range of views surrounding it.

Two Masters students will be employed to assist with the research work under the supervision of Professors Shore and Williams who themselves will travel to Canada and the United Kingdom as part of the project.

Professor Williams will also have the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary law/anthropology/history dialogues during his tenure as a Visiting Research Associate in the St John’s College Research Centre, University of Oxford from January to July 2014.

The Faculty of Law in recent years has had a high profile among New Zealand law schools in securing Marsden funding, with grants for Professor Jane Kelsey in 2009, Dr Richard Ekins in 2010, and this year Dr Caroline Foster, and Professor David V. Williams as a co-principal investigator.