Monday, March 13, 2006

Brian Rudman: If we ditch the monarchy, who gets the house?

Just how seriously we should take National MP Richard Worth's list of frontrunners for the job of next governor-general is a moot point. It's hard to imagine Helen would have called in the failed Epsom electorate MP for a pre-appointment briefing.

Still, the pool of suitable politically neutered wannabes, itching to play the Queen, must be very small, so for all I know, among Mr Worth's select four, may well be our next head of state.

They are Professor Mason Durie, former ombudsman Anand Satyanand and retiring defence chief Air Marshal Bruce Ferguson. But it's the No 1 on his team that caught my eye, Auckland compost king Rob Fenwick.

Where did that come from?

Maybe it's just a case of Mr Worth wanting one of his own kind back ruling the roost. The parallel life-paths of he and Mr Fenwick are spooky. King's College old boys, both one-time presidents of the Northern Club, both St John bigwigs, Fenwick as chancellor, both executive members of the National Party's Bluegreen "taskforce", Fenwick the founder convenor in 1998 after his short-lived Progressive Green Party sank without trace. Both also on the Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Of course if it was up to Prince Charles, a gentlemanly Green would be the obvious choice. Think of the small talk about composting toilets and conversing with plants they could get up during those awkward silences at Government House. But Charles isn't king of New Zealand yet, and I hope, as a good republican, he never will be. Which in a roundabout sort of way, is the key to my fascination with the idea of Rob Fenwick as viceroy.

Because as I see it, if Mr Fenwick takes up residence at Birchlands, the Governor-General's Auckland residence in Mountain Rd, and we subsequently ditch the monarchy, then Mr Fenwick and his cuzzies will inherit the palatial residence and the nearly 5 hectares of inner-city parkland that goes with it.

Not as some sort of TVNZ-like consolation prize for losing one's job, but because, back in 1962, Mr Fenwick's grandfather, Sir Frank Mappin, generously gifted this very property - his family home - to the Queen, for the use of her representatives and her successors in Auckland.

The deed of gift, signed by Sir Frank, and Prime Minister Keith Holyoake on May 23, 1962, declares that "the donor [was] moved by his duty and loyalty to Her Majesty and by a desire to benefit her present and future subjects in New Zealand by the provision of a site of dignity and beauty for the residence in Auckland for Her Majesty's Representative in New Zealand".

The deed states the property is gifted "upon trust for Her Majesty her heirs and successors according to law as a site for Government House in Auckland for ever ..".

Back then the thought of ditching the monarchy was unthinkable. As for the gift, it was a wonderful solution to the big political row brewing in downtown Princes St, where the academics were winning the battle to seize Old Government House for university use.

A politically fortuitous gift then, but also an expensive one to maintain, and in the late 1980s, when the Lange government was exploring ways of cutting costs, the prime minister raised the idea of selling Birchlands and housing the governor-general, on his/her infrequent sorties north, in suitable, and much cheaper, hotel accommodation. In Cabinet, I'm told, one of his colleagues suggested it might be wise to examine the deed of gift before doing anything rash. It seems the PM did, because the issue never surfaced again.

One bush lawyer I was talking to over the weekend suggested that if we went republican but retained the British monarch as head of the Commonwealth, then that might be enough to honour the deed of trust. Otherwise, there could be problems.

Let me hasten to add I have no idea what the heirs to Sir Frank's estate think about republicanism or the old family homestead. But you can imagine a certain amount of nostalgia around the dining table of a late night if one of Sir Frank's descendants were to become the official occupant and republicanism was in the air.

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