Former PM calls for constitutional spring clean


19 March 2018

Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer and constitutional expert Andrew Butler have made a call for New Zealand’s democracy to be revised and improved following a year of consultation with the public over their proposed 2016 Constitution Aotearoa.

Their revised proposal for a constitution sets a plan for a robust democracy that engages with all New Zealanders and brings the core values of human rights and transparency to the forefront.

‘We need public involvement and particpation in the decisions of government all the time, not just at election time.’

Sir Geoffrey and Dr Butler spent over a year travelling New Zealand, speaking to over 3,500 people and responding to hundreds of submissions to their proposal for a written, codified constitution.

‘Certain large sectors of our society feel disconnected from and distrustful of their government. This atmosphere must be dispelled. Our proposed constitution has a central focus on democratic renewal, deliberative democracy and engagement.’

During the submissions process and at their public meetings, the authors became concerned that there was significant lack of public faith in and understanding of how governmental arrangements worked for New Zealand society.

‘This disenfranchisement could be changed by creating a constitution that was simple to understand and located in one place,’ said Sir Geoffrey.

Andrew Butler says that many of the people they spoke to during their public consultations were shocked by how the legal protection of human rights is weaker in New Zealand than in many other countries with which we compare ourselves.

The Atkinson case, whereby Parliament enacted the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Amendment Act in a single sitting day, overriding the rights of disabled people and their family carers, generated concern during consultation.

‘This Act in effect took away rights from some of the most vulnerable people in our community—the disabled and family members who cared for them. Now that it has been enacted, there is nothing any court can do to stop it. That it could pass in a single day, without public consultation, shows how fragile our constitutional system is.’

The new proposal calls for an enhanced Human Rights Commission, giving the Commission constitutional status, alongside a ten-yearly review of the constitution to explicitly consider the position of socio-economic rights within the Bill of Rights.

The authors say an updated Bill of Rights must also include the environment, and the Māori concept of kaitiakitanga must be encompassed. They advocate the removal of the wording that currently allows ecological sustainability to be balanced against economic and social development.

They call for a ‘profound national conversation’ to understand what te Tiriti means legally and practically in modern New Zealand. Their new constitution proposal has now been rendered in te reo Māori, and both English and Māori versions appear side by side.

As well as bringing civics education into high schools to generate a better understanding of how government and legislature affect all citizens, the authors also propose lowering the voting age to 16.

Sir Geoffrey says that a constitution should be simple enough that schools can teach it without too much difficulty, and accordingly they have streamlined and simplified their proposal.

‘This document and its ethos must live in the hearts and minds of its people.’

The authors have outlined the findings from their consultation period as well as their revised proposal for a constitution in their new book, Towards Democratic Renewal, to be launched by Victoria University Press on 5 April 2018.

Sir Geoffrey says that Kiwis are justifiably proud to live in the first country in the world to adopt universal suffrage and other significant measures.

‘But we cannot rest on past glories. New Zealand must modernise its democracy and be vigilant in protecting the values we hold dear, for ourselves and future generations.’

Some of the changes to their proposal for a codified constitution include:

  • Fixed four-year term for Parliament;
  • Lower voting age to 16;
  • Update the the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990 to to recognise developments in international human rights not currently protected by the Act, including environmental rights, protection for workers and the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of gender identity and expression;
  • Entrench te Tiriti in the constitution, following a profound national conversation to clarify and understand what, in practical terms, the Treaty means in contemporary New Zealand;
  • Create a Head of State called the Kaitiaki (Guardian), who has powers to protect the constitution;
  • New Zealand to remain in the Commonwealth as a republic.
  • Towards Democratic Renewal contains the authors’ reasons for revisions following public consultation, as well as the full new text of their simplified proposal for a constitution in English and te reo Māori.

    Towards Democratic Renewal will be launched on Thursday 5 April, 6pm.