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Former Prime Minister calls for new constitution

10 August 2016

Former Prime Minister calls for new constitution

Former Prime Minister and Victoria University of Wellington Distinguished Fellow Sir Geoffrey Palmer is calling for a modern written constitution in New Zealand to boost public confidence in government.

Sir Geoffrey and constitutional expert Dr Andrew Butler have been working on a proposed new constitution and will soon publish a book, A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, setting out their ideas and seeking public comment on them.

New Zealand’s Constitution should be modernised to make it more easily accessible, says Sir Geoffrey.

“We aim to provide a model and stimulate the debate. We believe this country needs a modern constitution that is easy to understand, reflects New Zealand’s identity, enhances public confidence in government, and better protects rights and liberties.”

A constitution outlines the fundamental rules regarding the powers of government, how government institutions are structured and interact, as well as protections for human rights.

Compared with overseas constitutions, New Zealand’s Constitution was highly unusual in that it was made up of “a hodge-podge of rules”, was not located in one place and was very hard to find, said Sir Geoffrey.

Parts of what could be considered the current constitution were located in 45 Acts of Parliament, 12 international treaties, nine areas of common law, eight constitutional conventions, several executive orders and other legal instruments.

Trying to understand the current New Zealand Constitution was difficult and frustrating, says Sir Geoffrey. “It is unsurprising then that New Zealanders speak little of their Constitution and think about it even less.”

However, he believes the public will engage strongly once they have specific proposals to consider and its importance becomes clear.

“We believe the recent flag debate showed there was an appetite for discussion and movement on the constitution. A constitution goes to the heart of the matter about who we are and what we believe in.”

Sir Geoffrey and Dr Butler today launched a new website on the subject at http://constitutionaotearoa.org.nz/. More specific detail about the proposals will be revealed on the site after Victoria University Press publishes the book at the end of September and the public will then be invited to make submissions to the authors.

"Public participation and involvement is a core aim of our project," says Dr Butler. "We are convinced that people should have a sense of ownership of their constitution. So we want to hear from the public before finalising our own ideas."

There could be some significant changes. For example, the authors propose a new Constitution that would replace the idea of the Crown with a legal entity of the State. This could mean the end of the monarchy in New Zealand.

“However, it is possible to retain the monarchy and create the State,” Sir Geoffrey says. "In the book, we will be making the case for the substitution of a New Zealander as Head of State, but whether the Queen remains Head of that State would be up to New Zealanders. We simply want to show that it can be done, and can be done in a way that involves a minimum of fuss.”

In the meantime New Zealand’s present Constitution was incomplete and far too flexible, says Sir Geoffrey. Unlike most other countries, nearly all of New Zealand's constitutional rules can be altered very easily by Parliament. Important features, such as the Bill of Rights, can be changed or removed with no consultation and no popular mandate.

“In our view, government should be conducted under the law. That law should apply to everyone, including Parliament. People have rights and they should be provided in a constitution that is supreme law and binds the Parliament.”

New Zealand would be more successful and better governed if there was constitutional change, says Sir Geoffrey.

“The changes we will put forward we believe are a necessary part of preserving democratic freedom in New Zealand, and of protecting the fundamental principles which anchor public power and strengthen government accountability. We want to find out if New Zealanders agree.”

A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, published by Victoria University Press, will be launched at Parliament on 21 September: http://vup.victoria.ac.nz/a-constitution-for-aotearoa-new-zealand/


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