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Peter Dunne Speech: Karori Rotary Club

Peter Dunne Speech: Karori Rotary Club

Marsden College

Thank you for the invitation to address you this evening. I’d like to take the opportunity to go beyond immediate political events and cast an eye over the horizon.

Last week, the Privy Council denied Scott Watson leave to appeal his convictions for the murders of Olivia Hope and Ben Smart, leaving his lawyer to say that the only option now left open to Watson was an appeal to the Governor-General for a Royal pardon.

Talk about irony!

On the one hand, Watson’s will be one of the last New Zealand criminal cases to go before the Privy Council because we have just abolished that right of appeal in favour of a local Supreme Court, allegedly more in keeping with our emerging New Zealand nationhood and abhorrence of the cultural cringe.

On the other hand, the option of the exercise of the Royal prerogative, exercised on behalf of a monarch half a world away, still applies.

I cite that example, not because I intend to talk about the Watson case this evening, but because it highlights the fact that we are making significant constitutional changes in a vacuum, without any sense of their wider context.

Indeed, that was one of the major reasons that led United Future to oppose the Supreme Court Bill passed recently by Parliament by the narrowest of margins.

In passing, let me make a brief comment or two about that, to correct some of the canards that are abroad.

United Future did not change its mind on the legislation, nor welsh on any deal with the government to support it.

We voted against the Bill when it was introduced last year, and while we certainly considered all issues associated with it very carefully over the intervening twelve months, including whether we could support the legislation, we decided ultimately to stick with our original decision against it.

One of the reasons we came to that conclusion was the issue I have already alluded to – this was a significant constitutional change being advanced essentially in a vacuum.

It is certainly true that the government had, albeit reluctantly, agreed that if United Future supported the Bill, it in turn would support our proposal for a more widespread inquiry into New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements, an agreement that has now effectively lapsed because of our vote against the Supreme Court Bill.

Nevertheless, the issue remains important, and I am more firmly convinced than ever that the time is right to initiate a more fundamental review of our constitutional arrangements.

We are a young, but maturing country.

We are developing our own unique practices and traditions.

We are no longer, if indeed we ever were, a mirror image of Britain at the opposite end of the world.

First, the Maori dimension and the Maori cultural and social renaissance, and now the enriching influence of the Asian and other cultures that are becoming established in our country, are stamping a unique identity for contemporary New Zealand.

We are a far more diverse society than we were even 20 years ago, and that change will rapidly accelerate in the future.

Yet we all have one thing in common – the unique gift we possess by virtue of the fact that we are all New Zealanders, and that every single one of us, whatever our background, circumstance or creed, contributes a particular perspective to the national tapestry of our country.

Against that background, we have to ask ourselves therefore how much longer we can carry on with what has been an essentially “look, no hands” approach to our constitutional arrangements.

Of course, there have been sporadic efforts over the years to define our constitutional arrangements, but these may no longer be sufficient.

The Treaty of Waitangi is apparently our founding document, but for many it is far less a document of any constitutional merit or significance than a symbol of all that is wrong and divisive in our current society.

Other constitutional items exist, such as the Constitution Act 1852; the Letters Patent of 1917; the 1947 Statute of Westminster; through to the 1986 Constitution Act, the 1990 New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, and even the 1993 Electoral Act, but arguably lack any coherent overarching framework.

The Supreme Court Act, as it now is, could be seen in precisely the same light, as could aspects of the current debate surrounding ownership of the foreshore and seabed.

Lurking behind all these specific items is the question of whether or perhaps how long New Zealand should remain a constitutional monarchy, and when and if we should become an independent republic within the Commonwealth.

While I detect no great urgency over resolving that question, and while I personally believe such a move is an inevitable progression, I am nevertheless concerned that without a proper process for its consideration we will just drift into it, much as we did with the move to the Supreme Court, and that by the time the community wakes up to what is afoot, the die will have been cast.

Constitutional change by stealth is not only an affront to democracy; it is also an extremely foolish way to proceed.

All of which brings me back to my call for a more widespread and comprehensive examination of all our existing constitutional arrangements, from the Treaty of Waitangi onwards.

I do not believe anything should be sacrosanct or off-limits in this process.

If change is required, we should not shy away from making it, to better reflect contemporary realities.

We cannot begin to properly consider our constitutional future if we start from the position that there are some sacred cows we dare not touch.

At the same time, this should not be an excuse to indulge in an orgy of change, on the basis that everything is wrong, irrelevant, or has outlived its general usefulness.

That is plainly not the case.

Constitutional change is far more than a set of legal niceties.

Rather, it goes to the very heart of what we are as a nation, and what we could become.

I believe it has become a timely issue for contemporary New Zealand because of the immense social, economic and electoral changes of the last 20 years or so, in our country and around the world, and the diversity they have ushered in.

A consequence has been a mounting sense of disempowerment and disenfranchisement for many and a wish to therefore reclaim the political process.

In part, this explains why New Zealanders adopted MMP in 1993, and why so many people who had perhaps previously not thought all that deeply about the Supreme Court became so outraged when the legislation was rushed through Parliament so quickly recently.

It is also a timely debate for another reason.

I referred earlier to our emerging sense of nationhood as New Zealanders.

While there will be those who will sneer and scoff at such a concept, and who will grumble that such meaningless phrases are no basis on which to tamper with the fundamentals of our constitution, I hold a different view.

A constitution is much more than a stark, legal document – it is a living charter for a nation.

That is why the United States constitution remains fundamental to the life of that nation, over two and a quarter centuries after it was written.

Its elegant simplicity remains an inspiration to Americans of all ages and backgrounds.

Compare that and the sense of pride Americans have in their constitution with the various items that might be loosely described as New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements.

There is, simply, no comparison.

Nor is there any even remotely perceptible sense of public attachment to them.

You certainly do not see young Kiwis standing proudly in school quoting sections of the 1917 Letters Patent, for example, let alone articles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

We are a nation without heart on these matters.

And a nation without heart can quickly become a nation with no sense of destiny.

So how do we take these matters forward?

The starting point has to be some form of select committee inquiry along the lines United Future proposed at the time of the Supreme Court debate.

It is not acceptable in my view for the government to say that because we did not support that legislation it is now less enthusiastic than ever to pursue the issue of constitutional review.

The issue is far too important to be treated on the basis of party political considerations.

At the same time as the select committee inquiry there ought to be a wider discourse with New Zealanders, possibly conducted by a specialist panel akin to the highly successful public information exercises overseen so expertly by the late Sir John Robertson in the lead-up to MMP.

The results of both exercises would then need to be distilled by the government and firm proposals developed, perhaps with the assistance of an eminent persons group, to be put before New Zealanders in a binding referendum later this decade.

At present there is a lingering sense among people that the present government has a predetermined agenda for constitutional change, but that it is not prepared to let the rest of us in on the plan.

Specific events such as the abrupt abolition of knighthoods, the determination to proceed with the Supreme Court legislation despite the narrowness of the Parliamentary majority, and the renaming of Queen’s Counsel as Senior Counsel confirm for most people that change is underway, slowly but surely, but equally by stealth and without any sense of public endorsement.

Worse than that, I think many New Zealanders believe this government does not want too many people to know about its constitutional agenda, let alone become too involved in debating it, lest they muddy the waters and hold things up.

That was certainly the case with the Supreme Court Bill.

The fear is mounting that the rest of the agenda, whatever it may be, will be completed in an equally surreptitious way.

A formal process of review, leading to the development of a specific timetable for the consideration of any changes and the associated public debate, with the ultimate safeguard of a binding referendum is a far better approach, more in keeping with our democratic traditions.

There may of course be other options.

But doing nothing is not one of them in my view.

Whatever we do, our ultimate goal should be to enshrine the constitutional status of our country and the rights, privileges and responsibilities of its citizens in a single document of which all of us can feel proud.

I believe the progression of New Zealand towards a republic at some point is inevitable.

We must decide now whether we simply want to drift into some haphazard, ramshackle arrangement or take control of our own destiny and produce a document that proclaims to the world that New Zealand is a proud, independent nation capable of controlling its own destiny and asserting its own place in the world, free and democratic among equals.

I know what I prefer.

Thank you

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