Northern Advocate Column

A new constitution for New Zealand?

8 October 2016

Geoffrey Palmer, briefly New Zealand’s prime minister, along with Andrew Butler, a constitutional lawyer, have together written a draft constitution for this country. A likely response might be: “I didn’t know we needed one.” Well, maybe we do, maybe we don’t. New Zealand is a rarity among nation states in not having a formal constitution, but rather a number of separate Acts of Parliament. The weakness of this, argue Palmer and Butler, is that these constitutional foundations could crumble at the whim of a parliamentary majority. To hell with the Treaty of Waitangi says one government, let’s scrub it. We don’t like the Resource Management Act. Delete.

A constitution is supposed to include ground level values and rights for citizens. A famous example of course is the right of Americans to bear arms. But a constitution could include stuff like all citizens having the right to adequate and affordable housing. If a government was failing to guarantee this right then they could be held accountable by the courts. They could be directed to introduce policy to fix the situation, or even forced to go to the polls to elect a new government.

In their draft, Palmer and Butler, make some solid recommendations for what a New Zealand constitution might look like that ensures basic human rights. Their constitution would be a very centralised system of governance, but the authors also want to see local government given more autonomy. Parliament currently has the power to overrule local government if it sees fit. Like it’s considering doing when it comes to the decision by local councils, including Whangarei’s, to go GE free.

We have a political imbalance which gives far too much power to the cabinet MPs of the ruling political party of the day. That’s also where most of the money is controlled. Only 10% of tax revenue in New Zealand is spent by local government. The average in Western-style democracies around the world is 30%. In Basel-Land, a canton of Switzerland, citizens vote to approve tax rates and budgets, from education to roading. Unsurprisingly people in Basel-Land have more of a feeling that the state is working for them, not against them.

There’s clearly declining interest in local body elections in this country. One reason is surely because people don’t think that voting will change much about their lives. Wouldn’t it be different if suburbs, towns and cities had more power to pass laws, introduce taxes and allocate money to local initiatives? This would allow more grassroots ideas to come to fruition due to dedicated individuals and groups of people pursuing them. It would encourage experimentation and the use of new technologies at a local level. If something worked in Timaru it might be picked up by people in Kamo.

Yes, let’s have a debate about the constitutional foundations of this country, but please don’t let it be one that leads to more centralised bureaucracy, out-of-touch politicians and elite judges. Let there be space for people to exert greater influence over the physical and social environment in which they live, like reasoning and responsible adults perhaps.

To read the draft constitution and some of the reasoning behind it you can go to the website: www.constitutionaotearoa.org.nz

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