The Sound of One hand Clapping: The taxpayer funded "Constitutional Conversation" has so far demonstrated little inclination to facilitate a genuine debate on the Treaty's already entrenched place in the legal, administrative and political life of New Zealand. This unwillingness to either recognise or supply a visible platform for the nay-sayers betrays the "Conversation's" essential artificiality. A manufactured consensus is no substitute for a bloody good argument.
I DON’T GET ANGRY very often. I’ve been around too long, seen history repeat itself too many times, for all that malarkey. Just occasionally, however, I stumble across something that truly infuriates me.
Like discussions billed as debates where everybody is actually on the same side.
No, I’m not talking about TV3’s “The Vote”. What’s got my dander up is a four-part series being hosted by the NZ Centre for Public Law (NZCPL) entitled “Debating the Constitution”. All four encounters to be broadcast subsequently on Radio NZ National.
And, yes, the series is indeed a response to the Constitutional Review which emerged from the horse-trading between the National and Maori parties following the 2008 General Election.
The same review that has been the occasion for more than a little teeth-gnashing among those Pakeha who have declared themselves perfectly happy with New Zealand’s present constitutional arrangements, thank you very much, and who have voiced deep suspicions of both the motives behind its creation and the outcomes intended by its protagonists.
Now, you might be thinking: Well there’s the opportunity for a genuine, rip-snorting debate! And I’d be the first to agree. There are a host of noisy individuals who would’ve leapt at the opportunity to voice their doubts and suspicions concerning the whole Constitutional Review initiative.
And that’s what has got me all hot under the collar.
I’ve examined the personnel invited to participate in this exercise by the NZCPL and can I find any of the names associated with the political movement that has sprung up to oppose the Constitutional Review?
No, I can’t.
And it’s not as though it would have been at all that difficult for the NZCPL to locate these folk. All it needed to do was send out invitations to the membership of the defiantly christened “Independent Constitutional Review Panel” – a ready-made Negative Team comprising Professors Martin Devlin and James Allan; Associate Professor, Elizabeth Rata; Law Lecturer, David Round; journalist and author, Mike Butler; and the former Act MP, Muriel Newman.
Well, I looked through the list of “Debating the Constitution” participants and not even one member of the Independent Constitutional Review Panel was included.
The names I did see surprised me not at all. Before my eyes was a veritable roll-call of the good and the great; the wise and the just; the righteously indigenous and the guilty descendants of the Maori people’s wicked colonial oppressors.
Here’s a sneak peek at just some of the NZCPL’s line-up: Dame Claudia Orange, Sir Geoffrey and Dr Matthew Palmer, Moana Jackson, Dr Maria Bargh, Professors Margaret Wilson, Elizabeth McLeay and Andrew Geddis, Jim Bolger and Colin James.
Now, don’t get me wrong, every one of these illustrious individuals is capable of contributing mightily to a polite “discussion” of our constitutional arrangements. More than a few of them could also say much that was useful about its origins and political ramifications. But, seriously, do any of them strike you as people likely to hoe into the Review with the passion of its self-identified opponents?
The NZCPL’s list of speakers is not going to generate a debate on this important topic. No, these folk are going to deliver an academic seminar on the exercise to an audience which will almost certainly be comprised of like and equally lofty minds.
It was only after my father was posted to Wellington in 1969 that I encountered the delicious word “twee”. From the moment I heard it used in a sentence I have cherished it. No other word in the English language captures the mixture of exclusivity and effeteness that twee so wonderfully expresses.
And twee is exactly the right word to describe this series of debates-that-aren’t-debates.
What could have been a down-and-dirty verbal slug-fest; a chance for these grand personages to endure a rare encounter with New Zealanders who most emphatically do not share their “sound” views on the Treaty of Waitangi, bi-culturalism and New Zealand history; an opportunity to squeeze all the poisons inflaming the open wound that is New Zealand race relations into public view – has been missed.
And that not only makes me angry, it also makes me sad.
As a people, we used to be more open and courageous than this. When Jack was a good as any snooty professor, and a debate was still a bloody good argument.
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, 5 April 2013.