15 January 2012

Controversies ahead for 2012

In 2008, the post-election support agreement between the Māori Party and the National Party included an agreement ‘to establish a group to consider constitutional issues, including Māori representation’, to be led by the Deputy Prime Minister (Bill English) and the Minister of Māori Affairs (Pita Sharples, co-leader of the Māori Party). The terms of reference include, among other things, Māori representation in Parliament and local government, the constitutional role of the Treaty of Waitangi, and the possibility of a written constitution. The membership of a constitutional review advisory group has already been named, and the process should kick off during 2012, to report to Cabinet initially in 2013.

The structure of the review group and the reporting process suggest that it will all be carefully managed politically by the government of the day. Perhaps a more independent public body would have been preferable (but, speaking as a member of the public and an interested academic, I would say that, wouldn't I!). At this stage, however, this is only a process of informing, discussing and seeking people’s views. The questions of becoming a republic and changing the head of state, moreover, are not explicitly a part of the terms of reference, but there is no bar to their being discussed, and they are bound to be brought up anyway. We do have an enthusiastic republican movement in New Zealand, but, in my opinion, the controversial matters of Māori representation (and the separate electoral rolls) and the constitutional status of the Treaty do need to be resolved first, before we get into the full debate about republicanism, and so this step-by-step approach seems quite wise.

It is inconceivable, for instance, that we could adopt a written constitution without wide public debate and a referendum. But given some of the issues included in this present constitutional review, the debate could easily get heated. I'd watch this space, if I were you, as it could prove to be an interesting 'sleeper' issue for the coming year or more. And this process will have to go on alongside the Electoral Commission's review of the MMP system, now that voters have decided to retain it. Interesting times.

In future posts, if there's interest, I may cover more background on the Maori seats and the constitutional status of the Treaty.


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