What exactly is the Crown?

What exactly do we mean when we talk about “The Crown”? Is it a medieval headress for rulers with secret horcrux-like constitutional powers? Is it a popular series on Netflix? The Queen and or her family? Some sort of secret corporation that owns everything and anything?

The answer is pretty boring and a little confusing - but basically, like most things to do with the monarchy, it depends on the context. Much like whether “the Crown” is the Netflix series or a constitutional term. We use terms like “the Crown” or “Her Majesty in Right of New Zealand” to describe things that appear to be the same, but have subtle differences.

These differences all go back to the development of constitutional monarchy out of absolute monarchy, that is a system of government where the monarch still has absolute lawmaking and executive powers. In Britain, that development led first to a split between the monarch and their own assets (Palaces and jewels etc) and powers as personal rulers, and the civil government which developed by revolution, accident and most recently democratic processes. The second split is more relevant to New Zealand as a former British colony - a split-up of the Crown itself into separate Crowns for each former colony, which also creates a lot of confusion.

A good example of this confusion is how land titles are recorded where our government owns land. Recently, Stuff published an article entitled “How much of Auckland does the Queen own?” The title was clearly clickbait, as once you read past the headline you find:

The first-ever stocktake of publicly owned land in Auckland shows "Her Majesty the Queen" as the registered owner of 23,334 hectares, or 4.75 per cent of the city's land area.

Public sector land makes up 19.12 per cent of the city, and the most of the Crown's share of that land is held in the name of the Queen.

In other words, “the Queen” - as in the Queen in person - doesn’t own the land at all, it’s owned by this thing called “the Crown” which is the government.

Or is it? Often the term refers to the executive, that is ministers, who make user of its powers to do their jobs. You may have seen on your student loan if you’ve got one that the agreement is between you and “Her Majesty the Queen in right of New Zealand, acting by and through the Minister of Finance.” Now that doesn’t mean the Queen or Grant Robertson have personally lent you the money, it just means that the legal entity lending you the money is the Crown, with the Minister of Finance administering things.

The best way to think of the Crown is that it is what’s called a “legal personality” - a term used to describe what the state is. In some cases that’s the executive (Cabinet and Ministers), in others it’s a government department. In some cases it refers to the Governor-General.

If this all sounds a bit confusing, that’s because it is. And because it’s confusing it’s often hard to know exactly what’s what. There’s an easy way to clear this up of course. As we’ve seen with the Irish Free State’s transitition to the Republic of Ireland, a deeming provision deemed that the Crown (and the Governor-General and the Sovereign) is now either the Government, the Executive Council or the head of state is all that’s required. “Her Majesty the Queen in Right of New Zealand” is simply the New Zealand Government on land titles.