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On The Left - Constitution Games

I'd always thought the Olympic Games was a marathon event, requiring a lot of endurance, skill and so on to get to.

However, over the last two days it's become clear that there's a much tougher sport which anyone can engage in, which you don't have to go overseas for, and for which you don't need any spectacularly expensive clothes or equipment or practice, even.

It's called constitutional debate, and everyone should try it once in a while.

On a more serious note, this weekend saw a conference at Parliament run by the Institute of Policy Studies from Victoria University of Wellington on the future of New Zealand's constitution. Numerous options appear to have been canvassed, on topics ranging from how the globalising economy affects New Zealand's constitution development, to whether the Treaty should be included in any changes, to whether Parliament should be changed, and so on and so on and so on. All the papers presented are currently available at http://www.vuw.ac.nz/inst-policy-studies/conf/contributions.htm and for those with the intestinal fortitude to look at them, go right on ahead.

My focus is on the form of the Constitution, and starts off from the principle that it is an inevitable part of our constitutional evolution that we're going to end up as a republic. One way or the other, the monarchs of England will cease to be our head of state. That is as inevitable as universal suffrage here, or the end of slavery in the United States. Our nationhood cannot truly be expressed and represented by anyone other than a person of the land, someone who has lived here and knows our place and its peoples.

It's not, however, entirely that simple. And the reason for that of course is the Treaty. A document signed 160 years ago this year has a status that on one level is quite undeserved. Signed between Crown and Maori so long ago, and in such a different political context, one has to wonder at the relevance of the text today. Surely we can just all get along, trust each-other and come up with something new for the new decade/century/millennium/whatever?

Well, basically, no. And if you think about it for a while, it becomes apparent why. Under governments supposedly bound by the Treaty of Waitangi, a vast amount of damage has been done to Maori. Decades of abuse, of unresponsive, irresponsible and downright evil treatment of Maori by settler and, later, Pakeha governments has led us to the point where Maori come bottom of almost every single social indicator that there is, from income to health status to educational achievement.

Basically, trust between Maori and Government is, as far as I can make out, at an all time low.

In my view it's this simple and unenviable fact which underpins the reluctance of Maori today to engage in any meaningful dialogue with the current government over our constitutional arrangements. The idea of a Treaty with another power, and an appeal to that other power's courts system, is a security that isn't really up for negotiation at the current time.

No doubt there are other interpretations as to why Maori don't appear to be comfortable with the idea of replacing the Crown as our head of state with an elected New Zealander. Personally, I'd really look forward to seeing that kind of debate develop - Maori working out how they truly feel about the Treaty of Waitangi and its relevance in the modern world.

Though I think that until such a debate occurs, to some extent posturing about the constitutional future of New Zealand is an academic exercise in every sense of the word, I do want to engage in a bit of that kind of posturing here. Some of the debate which occurred in Australia last year has a useful carryover here, and I am particularly referring to the `elected or appointed' argument of how a President should be appointed.

My view is in keeping with an evolutionary approach. I think that constitutions work best when they change fairly slowly. The best evidence of that is the Westminster Constitution, which has survived approximately 300 years in its current form without revolutionary change.

If evolution is the way to go, then it seems to me the first step to republicanism in New Zealand would be to change from having an appointed Governor General to an appointed President, serving a five year term. This would allow the country the chance to start feeling its way forward in a republican frame without the sky falling in or anything particularly dramatic changing.

In the longer term though, the objective should be a thorough democratisation of our constitutional structure. A president would have to be elected, though I have mixed feelings on whether that would be a direct or indirect process. A directly elected president would diffuse power, and create pressure for an executive role to be built up around the position which is at odds with the current Westminster notion of the executive being tied to the legislature. Parliamentary committees would need to be strengthened in any case, to make our system of Government more open and accountable. And probably a useful reform, whether we become a Republic or not, would be some really strong freedom of information legislation to make Government open up.

So, I am left (again, spookily) in agreement with Simon Upton, who in Upton-on-line this week said that "It is abundantly clear that if any government thinks it is going to fiddle around with the constitution, it will run smack into a huge reef called the Treaty of Waitangi. The reef may not be marked on constitutional maps but [we] soon discovered that it totally surrounded the tiny atoll on which [we were] perched." It's a tough problem, and it depends for sorting on one treaty partner engaging in what will be a protracted and possibly painful debate. It also relies on the new Government dealing with Maori issues in a sensitive and appropriate way - and on neutralising ACT's threat to the whole process in an effective fashion.

There may be no On The Left next week, as I am away at a conference, but if there is, then

Till next week,

Jordan Carter carters@ihug.co.nz

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