Leave Well Enough Alone: Had the British parliament not attempted to radically reshape its relationship with its American colonies the United States might never have been born. Most New Zealanders harbour an equally deep suspicion of any politician foolish enough to "mess" with one of the world's most radically democratic constitutions. The Constitutional Review Panel certainly opted for pragmatic discretion over philosophical valour.
IT ARRIVED, as I rather expected it would, with a whimper - not a bang. Just as well really. Changes in the way we govern ourselves; in the hardwiring of the state itself; are not the business of hand-picked appointees - no matter how grand. Constitutions are not made by committee.
The report of the Constitution Review Panel, a concession extracted from the National Government by their Maori Party ally in 2008, offered little more by way of a final recommendation than that the “conversation” on constitutional matters, which the Panel itself had kicked off, should continue.
But, realistically-speaking, what else could the Panel have recommended? There was - and is - no public clamour for constitutional reform from the New Zealand people and the very best efforts of the Panel to interest the public in its work fell spectacularly flat. Indeed, about the only thing the Panel could have done to elicit the popular buy-in it so desperately wanted would have been to bring down a report suggesting something other than maintaining the status quo.
Predictably, the worthy ladies and gentlemen of the Panel attributed this lack of interest to New Zealanders’ general ignorance of matters constitutional - a deficit they proposed to rectify by encouraging the teaching of civics courses in our primary and secondary schools.
A good idea? It depends on whether or not you agree that Kiwis are ignorant of their constitutional arrangements. Personally, I think the New Zealand people have a pretty good grasp of the way their system works.
Since 1852, the year they received a constitution from their colonial masters in London, New Zealanders have worked consistently to both simplify and radicalise their constitutional arrangements.
Within 40 years of being granted “responsible self-government” we had attained universal suffrage. The UK and the USA would not achieve the same result until the 1920s.
Within 100 years we had dispensed with the Legislative Council - New Zealand’s appointed upper house.
It took 144 years to replace the egregiously undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system with a proportional form of representation.
Moreover, throughout that entire 161 year period of responsible self-government we have steadfastly refused to fasten ourselves into the straightjacket of a written constitution.
Given the radical simplicity of our constitutional arrangements - why should we?
As far as most Kiwis are concerned, their rights and freedoms; their ability to effect political change; the resilience of their democratic culture; all flow from the same source: a House of Representatives directly elected by the people for a three year term. That’s it. Popular sovereignty via Parliament. No more need be said.
Oliver Cromwell had to win the English Civil War, behead his King and abolish the House of Lords before he could sit in a unicameral parliament answerable to (some of) the electors. In the contemporary world, only the Israelis can boast of anything even remotely comparable to New Zealand’s constitutional simplicity.
Luminaries like Sir Geoffrey Palmer may lament this state of affairs and call for “A written constitution, including the Bill of Rights entrenched so that Parliament cannot ride roughshod over it, meaning the courts can enforce it against the Government” (The Dominion Post, 24/12/13) but, as the Constitutional Panel discovered to its obvious dismay, Kiwis are not in the least bit interested in curbing Parliament’s powers to “ride roughshod” over anyone and anything that stands in its Government’s way. Nor are they willing to cede to an unelected judiciary the power to second-guess and/or over-rule the will of the people’s representatives.
With a parliamentary term of just three years, most New Zealanders are confident that any government showing signs of going seriously off the rails can be thrown out of office before inflicting too much damage on the body politic. By the same token, however, if changes need to be made they expect their representatives to be able to make them completely free of the threat of judicial intervention.
Those who seek to complicate New Zealand’s constitution do so for reasons that have little to do with democracy. On the contrary, it is precisely with its radically democratic effectiveness that most “reformers” take issue.
New Zealanders No. 8 wire constitution may be inelegant and lacking in checks and balances - but it's ours.
Meddle with it at your own risk.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 December 2013.