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PoliticsMarch 6, 2017

People don’t care about a NZ constitution? That’s not what we’re finding

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

Some say we have got it just right. Some are completely opposed. Others say we haven’t gone far enough. But the overall response to our project has been heartening, writes Geoffrey Palmer.

While some may believe New Zealanders are never interested in constitutional matters, my recent meetings around the country prove that to be wrong.

Dr Andrew Butler and I are currently seeking submissions from the public about their views on whether New Zealand should have a written constitution.

Our book, A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, proposes that a single document be written and available to all New Zealanders, clearly stating the fundamental rules and principles under which New Zealand is governed.

In the book we seek public comment about issues such as whether New Zealand should be a republic or a monarchy, whether the Bill of Rights or the Treaty of Waitangi should be included in a written constitution that would bind parliament and what limits there should be on government powers, among other things

We believe this is important as New Zealand is one of only three countries in the world without a written codified constitution. While we do have a constitution, it is not in one place, it is not easy to find and it is not well understood or known.

We hope to start a nationwide conversation about how New Zealanders want their government to work.

We have been touring the country and talking to various groups. So far, we have held meetings in Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Wellington, Nelson, Takaka, Christchurch, Queenstown and Dunedin. We have spoken to about 1700 people already and we have other meetings scheduled in Hastings, Christchurch, at universities and we are planning more in Auckland.

A human with the NZ flag on their face. Unlikely to be Geoffrey Palmer. Image: Getty

These public meetings have all been well received and people are discovering things they did not know about how governance works in New Zealand. They tend to become highly engaged as a result. We often have more questions than can be answered in the time available. Our website and Facebook page list our future public meetings, speeches, articles and significant media engagements. We also welcome online submissions and are asking the public to tell us what they think about our proposals by September.

We are approaching particular groups, too. We will take stock of all the submissions and use them to refine our ideas before finalising our proposals and publishing them. Already we have had several hundred submissions. But we want many more.

We plan to put out another book in 2018 arguing for the final recommendations in a way that we hope will have permanent significance. This version will be more refined with more information.

It will contain changes from those presented in the first book.

There has been a mixture of responses to our proposals. Some say we have got it just right. Some are completely opposed. Others say we haven’t gone far enough.

The many submissions so far have opened up a number of issues and made clearer where the most difficult points in our proposals are.

The majority opinion seems strongly of the view that it would be good to write down our constitutional arrangements in one place called the Constitution. This is not surprising. In 2013 the government-backed Constitutional Advisory Panel reported that there was a widespread view that we should have a written constitution.

Views are split on whether to include the Treaty of Waitangi in a constitution and what that would mean. Some think to do this would mean “apartheid, a slogan which is accompanied by no analysis. Others think it would be wrong not to include it.

We have further work to do on this issue and consultations to have.

On the topic of New Zealand becoming a Republic, many see this as inevitable.

An issue that has generated interest is how a new Head of State would be selected-by Parliament, with a simple majority, or a special majority or by election by the people.

What is plain is that if New Zealand does become a republic, a written constitution would be needed.

Regarding giving the power to Judges to strike down legislation that is contrary to the superior law constitution, there is a large degree of acceptance, although some are nervous it could lead to “Americanisation.”

Few seem to be aware of the protections in the present law that require important provisions of the Electoral Law to receive a 75 % majority in Parliament or a referendum of the people carried by a simple majority.

When we have explained how that works and how it would produce results quite different from the United States that has reassured many.

There is widespread support for including the Bill of Rights in a constitution, but very little comment so far on additional rights we propose, such as privacy and property.

There has, however, been strong endorsement for the right to an environment not harmful to a person’s health and well-being and protection for the environment for the benefit of present and future generations.

We have heard strong support for many of the important parliamentary reforms proposed, such as:

  • restricting the taking of urgency in parliament to progress legislation to occasions when it can command a 75% majority in parliament;
  • a fixed four-year term of parliament;
  • changing the method by which the speaker is appointed by the House so that it is an office truly independent from the government and is not a government nominee.

A topic upon which we have not heard enough on is local government.

Local government is closest to the people but is rather weak in New Zealand and subject to close legal control by central government.

We have made proposals to give it more autonomy and we would like more submissions on this.

Overall we are heartened by the level of interest in the project that New Zealanders have shown.

Brexit and the Trump effect have quickened interest in this project.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC is a former New Zealand prime minister, a lawyer and a writer. He is the co-author with Dr Andrew Butler of A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, which makes the case for a written and codified constitution to protect New Zealanders’ rights and liberties. They are taking submissions on their proposals at

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