Why a Constitution is important: how change can make your life better
Excerpt from an address by Sir Geoffrey Palmer to Continuing Education, Hamilton, Tuesday 29 February 2017
Why is it that Andrew Butler and I are promoting a written codified Constitution?
It is because we think there are serious dangers with the present arrangements.
New Zealand is one of the only countries in the world without a written codified Constitution.
What we say on the front of our book is what we aim to do:
We propose a written, codified Constitution for New Zealand. That Constitution aims to set out in an accessible form and a single document the fundamental rules and principles under which New Zealand is to be governed. It defines the powers of the basic institutions of government and the rights of individuals. It deals not with individual elements of the constitution in isolation, but sets out the constitutional world as coherent whole.
Well the trouble is, when put that way, people have trouble understanding what it means.
That is because they do not know what is in our present Constitution.
We have a Constitution but it is not to be found in one place but many places.
But we all have a stake in a well governed society.
New Zealand is governed quite well, but it could be better.
Everyone needs to know what the rules are.
At present our Constitution is almost entirely political.
It changes with political events.
The protections for long-standing fundamental social and constitutional values are at the mercy of the House of Representatives.
A majority of one can change almost everything.
Some things should be beyond that.
A majority of one can and does over-ride the Bill of Rights Act by enacting specific legislation.
That has happened on at least 37 occasions since 1990 when the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act was passed.
Listen to the worst occasion in recent years.
It was 2013.
Let me read part of our book to you:
… in 2013 Parliament enacted the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Amendment Act in a single sitting day. Its principal effects were first to prevent anyone ever making a complaint to the Human Rights Commission or bringing a court proceeding against any Government family carer policy no matter how discriminatory, and second, to exclude retrospectively the provision of remedies for past discrimination. It followed a decision of the Court of Appeal that had upheld the human rights of some of the most vulnerable people in our community—the disabled and family members who cared for them. There was no warning that the Bill was to be introduced; there was no public consultation on it; there was no Select Committee consideration of it. By any measure, it was a shocking piece of legislation that ousted well-known constitutional protections and removed New Zealand citizens’ rights to be free from discrimination in certain cases. Yet it passed in a single sitting day despite almost immediate public outcry. Only another Act of Parliament can alter or remove it. That is how fragile our constitutional system currently is.
We think the Bill of Rights should not be capable of being over-ridden except by a majority of 75 percent of the MPs.
That is the way we currently protect the vital democratic provisions of the Electoral Act, such as the secret ballot.
Minority rights and fundamental values need better protection than they receive in New Zealand at present.
We think Parliament should be bound by the law and not be above it by enacting any legislation that seems to it a good idea on any given day.
The rule of law needs better protection in New Zealand.
Our proposed Constitution will provide it.
We want to restrict public power to preserve liberty.
We want to provide anchors to which the use of public power are attached.
We want to promote more transparency in government and improve accountability.
That is what representative democracy is all about.
Most of all we want a Constitution that can all be found in one place and is binding upon everyone; the Parliament, the ministers, the public service and the people.
Then the people will better be able to understand how the Government makes decisions and how they, the citizens, may participate in them.
It will help people to own their government.