Wednesday 1 January 2014

"Don't Tread On Me!" - Our Radically Simple Constitution

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.


Anonymous said...

..NZ History and The Treaty of Waitangi :many scientific reports are now available to establish the existence of 'pre-maori' civilizations in NZ...massive evidence..of which much is 'undercover' and has been destroyed by govt. agencies. The truth of the nations past has been hidden on purpose. New Zealanders of today are being conned about the 'Treaty' and our past by groups with a vested entire industry surrounding the Treaty of Waitangi today, is making a lot of people,within it rich and powerful...the Tribunal does not operate under the usual rules of balance applicable to Courts..creating below standand decisions. The real issue is not the financial compensation but the 'Power Structure' surrounding the Treaty Industry....that could very easy become Entrenched" as part of the 'new Constitutional review'..the Waitangi Tribunal is effectively " making up History as they go.." in order to justify a bigger agenda. New Zealanders of today...have to urgently ensure that New Zealands' past be told truthfully...and not by its biased cultural and political gatekeepers.....

Guerilla Surgeon said...

What is this bullshit? Don't tell me you're one of those who believes that Celtic people somehow managed to colonise New Zealand? There is no evidence at all of any pre-Maori "civilisations". Not to mention that a government that leaks like ours wouldn't stand shit show off covering any up. This is the purest bullshit I have read since I accidentally got onto a neo-Nazi website. Please take off the tinfoil hat. And read some historians, rather than the usual nutcases who write this crap.

Paulus said...

I saw and read between the lines that the Constitutional Review was principally aimed at making the Treaty Of Waitangi the focal point of all the changes. Changes and other moves had to be Treaty approved. Parliament would be stifled, like in the EU, by outside controls and Laws.
It appeared entirely self serving which is why the public of thinkers generally saw through its protestations.

Davo Stevens said...

@Surgeon; It depends on how one defines "Civilisation". The Maori had a civilisation but it was very different to ours.

They were regarded as being "Stone Age" which they were, so were our ancestors.

They were regarded as being "Canibals" which they were, so were our ancestors.

They were regarded as being "Warlike" which they were too, what about us?

There is so much hypocrisy when we describe other cultures than our own. We are no better or worse than they are. Some-one once said that travel broadens your mind and that is quite true, it does. In my trsvels I learned that I would always respect another's culture, ideas and beliefs. That way I go along with all sorts of strange people!

Anonymous said...

World Wars 1 and 2 were pretty warlike.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Were they ever Andrew. I refuse to compromise with the fools who go on about previous civilisations. It happens all over the next British colonies, and it's just an excuse for believing that we don't over the previous inhabitants anything, because they obviously took the country of somebody else. If it's not pre-Maori civilisations, it's that Templars discovering and colonising America or Celts in New Zealand or some such rubbish. It's complete crap along the lines of quack medicine. The scholarship's abysmal and it's generally run by some form of neofascist organisation. They're the sme sort of people who go on about Maori warfare and cannibalism, considering as you said, some of the greatest wars in the world have been started and finished by Europeans, and body parts were used in European medicine until well into the 19th century. So we were warlike cannibals later than many people think. :-)

Anonymous said...

How can you discuss and then dare to change or draw up a constitution, when the bulk of the population do not even know what it consists of, what matters, what should perhaps be in it, and what it is there for?

That is my question and conclusion, so I am not the least surprised about the outcome. The Nats did not really want more than this, because they just agreed to it to get the Maori Party on board, to support them in government, none else.

There was no sincere intention to draw up a proper, independent constitution document, and also do many still struggle with whether to, and if so, how to integrate the Treaty of Waitangi principles in it.

New Zealanders are pre-occupied with their daily challenges, with work, career, business, shopping and a suspicious to dim view of anything to do with politics. That is also why there are too many that do not bother to vote anymore, which of course helps the conservative Nats and their support parties to get voted in, to have the numbers to form a government.

We need a more politically literate and socially aware society, to get there and have a proper, independent NZ constitution. Given the presently hopeless state of affairs, this can take another generation to happen.

A sad and depressing situation, really. A grown up country can afford to have, and should have it's own constitution.

Victor said...

Hi Chris

I agree that there’s no huge appetite for constitutional reform. And, in general, I tend to the view that, if it’s not broke, you shouldn't mend it. Even so, I believe there’s a pressing case for New Zealand having a written constitution.

There are, to my knowledge, only two developed countries without such constitutions, viz: ourselves and the UK. I’ve lived at length in both places and would sincerely doubt whether either of them is any longer amongst the best-governed nations on earth.

In both cases, despotic powers, originally assumed to be inherent in the monarch, have been taken over by whoever leads the largest party in parliament, without any of the breaks that people in other democracies take for granted.

In New Zealand’s case, this inherently undesirable situation has been partially modified by the introduction of MMP. But what would happen if a party got more than 51% of the popular vote? Would we not then revert to the kind of elective dictatorship New Zealanders wisely rejected in the aftermath of Rogernomics and Ruthenasia?

With respect to the specific issue of civil liberties: the absence of an entrenched bill of rights allowed the UK ( a country with robust traditions of personal freedom) to degenerate into something approaching a ‘national security state’, during the period when the egregious Blair was waging his catastrophic war of the jackal in Iraq.

I didn’t live in New Zealand during the Muldoon years but, from what I’ve heard, there wasn’t always a great deal of regard for civil liberties around here at that time. And, certainly, our now reformed electoral system hasn’t held the executive and its organs effectively in check on civil liberties issues (c.f. Uruweras, Dot.Com, etc., etc.).

Meanwhile, let me court further obloquy by suggesting that our (almost unique) unicameral parliament might not necessarily be a good thing. Second chambers exist in most democracies primarily to prevent or delay wrong-headed, hasty or badly drafted legislation hitting the statute book.

The acid test, then, of whether our unicameral arrangements succeed must surely lie in the quality of our legislation. I would suggest to you that they fail that test on a regular basis.

Traditionally, the Left has been suspicious of second chambers, seeing in them an elitist check on the democratic fiat of the Sovereign People. But much of the torrent of bad legislation to which we’ve been subjected in recent decades owes its origins to the Neo-Liberal assault upon our social fabric. And much other bad legislation is neither leftwing nor rightwing but just plain bad.

Nor is there any reason why a second chamber should not be just as democratic as the first.

There are essentially only two electoral systems which are truly proportional and hence truly democratic, viz. the national list (whether or not it’s modified qua MMP) or STV.

Both systems have their strengths and both have their weaknesses. So why not mediate the weaknesses of MMP with a second chamber elected through STV? What better way could there be to counteract the perceived lack of local accountability in our current arrangements?

Obviously, though, I’m not holding my breath over any of these suggestions.

Don Robertson said...

I used to think we needed to have a constitution and a republic, but have changed my mind. Constitutions are not a very effective method of stopping dictators taking over - any number of countries have had their constitutions suspended. And the more I see the US constitution treated as a quasi-religious document that is enshrined as secular dogma, the less I like it. You notice how the Framers of the Constitution is always capitalised? As is the Founding Fathers. How everything from gun control to stem cell research has to be filtered through 'what would the framers of the constitution have thought' as though they had some divine insight into all the problems the future will bring.
No -I think we are better off muddling through with laws that suit us at any given time.

BTW - I think the US constitution is the oldest surviving national constitution in the world. And the US seems to be becoming ungovernable. Coincidence?

Anonymous said...

..OK let's move onto..."the Greatest Swindle in New Zealand History.." organised by the present c.finlayson..Minister of Treaty Negotiations...I will be brief so listen up..! Extensive reading and research indicates there are three to four major claims for the customary title(ownership rights) of the foreshore and seabed under his arrogant..thieving and racist act.."Marine and Coastal Areas Act" passed in 2011..these initial claims are just the tip of the iceberg" of what is to come from coastal 'neo-tribal part maori anachronistic they realize the full extent of the bonanza that your 'thieving and racist Marine and Coastal Areas Act has given the expense of the traditional rights of the general public of New Zealand...non-maori and maori the greatest swindle in New Zealands' History..this will never be forgotten for generations to come and 'extreme racism' will dwell in this country until this Act is repealed...passed for no other reason than to 'buy'the support in Parilament of a small unrepresentative race based Maori party...Finlayson/Key govt. have betrayed there own supporters as well as ALL New Zealanders...who will lose more and more of their precious coast under the 'thieving and racist Marine and Coastal Areas Act...a country divided against itself...the signs of disintegration are increasing...'united we stand and divided we fall.." An Act of less..History will never forget...

jh said...

Jarred Diamond is in hot water with a few people for stating that tribal societies were in a constant state of war with each other until becoming part of a nation state [The World Until Yesterday]. If you believe the glossiest picture of tribal society you might agree with the need for the constitutional review other wards it is the Great Leap Backwards