21 August 2006

Constitutional Reform

In a recent Listener article Tim Watkin has done a good, thoughtful job of explaining the need for constitutional reform. It’s a shame that so many other New Zealanders find the subject too boring to think about, or else take the complacent ‘if ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach. Worse still, MPs are clearly too scared to tackle the problem, and produced a very lame reporton the matter. I think we need more debate about this.
I disagree with Watkin in his assumption that the Treaty is an essential part of any future constitution. The Treaty is a poorly drafted and ambiguous document, and some of its wording is now simply irrelevant (‘British subjects’? The Crown’s ‘exclusive right of Preemtion’ in land transactions?). It has become a source of division, rather than unity; and its two versions appear to mean quite different things.
Certainly, it does have an historical constitutional role, in that it signifies the formation of the British colonial government here, and it purported (at very least) to protect Maori property rights. So, a constitution may note the historical place of the Treaty. But surely we could come up with wording that would better reflect the future status of sovereignty and indigenous peoples’ rights than what the Treaty offers us. We need to think creatively about this, and not just assume that the Treaty has an unquestionable place as some kind of constitutional bedrock.
Naturally, the status of the Treaty will become one of the biggest debating points in any future constitutional reform process. But, the place of the British monarch as head of state, and the possible powers of any new head of state, are equally significant and emotive issues for us. I think it’s time we ordinary New Zealanders took the lead over politicians and began this debate.


At 1:20 PM, Blogger jean p said...

Its interesting to see New Zealanders wanting a more active dicussion on constitutional reform.

I have read the report of Parliament on the stocktaking exercise and cant help but appreciate their stand.

Yes, discussions must begin but I, too, support a more cautious approach. The crux of the matter is that the NZ Government must first engage the public in the resolution of the various constitutional issues identified specifically the constitutional position of the Treaty of Waitangi, balance of power between the executive, legislative and judiciary, and the entrenchment of the bill of rights, and republicanism among others. This is the first step.

That New Zealand is a country of evolution, not revolution gives it the luxury to proceed in a deliberate, stable and methodical process...

We dont want to see the negative effects of divisiveness in NZ..which constitutional reform (with the passion it incites) has brought forth in some countries.

I wonder if this is the time to take the bull by its horn. Only New Zealanders will know.

At 3:35 PM, Anonymous Grant said...

Good point, Jean. I agree with the evolutionary approach, but, no matter how you approach it, the debate will get nasty. We may as well have the debate anyway, as the conflicts come up from time to time, regardless. I felt that the 'do nothing much' resolution of MPs was because they didn't want to take ownership of such a load political contention. The public would do well to press the need on government, rather than the other way around.

At 4:57 PM, Blogger Idiot/Savant said...

Part of that debate should already be happening, with the Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi Deletion bill currently before the Justice and Electoral select committee. But this seems to have attracted no real interest from the media or wider public at all.

There's also a "Head of State Referenda Bill" in the member's ballot, which could pop out at any time, which would force us to talk about the monarchy vs a local head of state (or at least, talk about talking about it).

People are talking about these issues, but its not a large conversation. I recommend the Holden Republic blog; there's some very interesting draft legislation there.

At 8:54 PM, Blogger mark said...

I think the treaty needs to be recognised as the beginning of the story - what I've heard described as a form of marriage with no right of divorce, implying that we have to make the relationship work. But there's a problem with the "we" part - it was between Maori and the Crown, not Maori and Pakeha, so sticking slavishly to the words in the treay isn't necessarily the best way forward.
I question the desireability of having a written constitution though - there's enough bollocks written about human rights as it is, and once its written, it means more money for the lawyers and a change in the relationship between Parliament and the Courts as Jean has suggested, and I prefer the judiciary to at least outwardly to appear to be political eunuchs, which sort of matches their clothes anyway.
And while i'm at it, and with immaculate timing after the event, I'd just like to comment: our contact course ended and I felt a bit deflated. What I would really have liked would have been some eating facilities on campus open in the middle of the day, and lunchtimes of 1+1/2 hours to provide opportunities for informal discussion and networking. Too late now. I probably mentioned it last time. Did anyone else feel the same way?

At 11:18 PM, Blogger Idiot/Savant said...

Mark: that "bollocks" on human rights is an important limit on the actions of government. And we have only to look at the Ahmed Zaoui case, where a man was kept in jail for two years without trial, and still looks like he may not receive a fair and public hearing, in order to see how necessary those limits are.

At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Grant said...

Well, yes it surprises me just how casual NZers can get about human rights. The country has a fairly good record in this regard, but public opinion is often very hostile to human rights, and people are often very willing to deny basic rights to unpopular individuals. But, if we want to be treated with dignity ourselves, we can't go denying it to others, regardless of what they may have done. Anyway, parliamentarians are too prone to public opinion, so should not be trusted always to respect human rights, and a constitution would help to assure this.


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