She’s in the ground and it’s time.
In May last year Prime Minister Ardern was centre stage at the Harvard Commencement Address and issued a dire warning that democracies can die, public institutions can wither, and states themselves can fall.
It is astonishing that a Prime Minister who has had to use legal and martial forces by the state against its own citizens in security and in public health, seen Parliament occupied for over a month, endured our worst terror attack, and made some of its deepest reforms in three decades in health, local government and water, cannot see any reason to connect weakening democracy to ourselves and hence a need for constitutional reform.
As Prime Minister Ardern herself stated while in London for the commemoration events, she will not act about the constitution unless and until there is a compelling reason to do so:
The only people who ever ask me about it are the media.”
This is a prime minister who simply will not act unless there is a strong and pressing will of the people to do so. That is her pattern.
So let’s go to Ardern’s own words from that Harvard address, and turn that same to ourselves. When complaining about the corrosion of public discourse through social media, she said:
It ignores the fact that the foundation of a strong democracy includes trust in institutions experts, and government – and that this can be built up over decades but torn down in mere years.”
That’s just social media and its impact upon our Muslim community as a very good reason for constitutional reform that she herself has admitted.
In just one Parliamentary term we have seen, without specific electoral mandate, our democratic rights and input removed or deeply weakened by this government in water management, school boards, health, tertiary training, local government, and independent oversight of children in need of protection. Ardern has stated her case that democracies can die, but that applies in New Zealand and from the left as much as anyone else.
Then there’s COVID19. Minister Parker has set out clearly what the legal and constitutional impact of COVID-19 has been. I have not been more chilled by the state than when I was stopped at Meremere by both the Police and the NZDF to determine whether I could drive out of Auckland for work, handing over three sets of approvals, while 99% of other citizens and residents were confined by force to their homes. Minister Parker could see the constitutional ramifications, even before they started re-nationalisation.
That’s them in their own words.
Why constitutional reform now?
Timing. The Queen is dead and what will replace her will be far weaker in its importance to us. The World War 2 generation is 95% dead. 90% of historic Treaty settlements are done. The Bicentennary is only 18 years away.
Then there’s politics. Mixed Member Proportional Representation has dampened ideological extremism and delivered greater Parliamentary diversity. But we’re not safer, nor stronger, nor clearer about where we are going for having it as a set of mechanisms.
Then there’s necessity. In a term or so all historic Treaty claims will be done. In 2048 the Antarctic Treaty will expire. The New Zealand Realm countries Tokelau, Niue and Cook Islands are going to get really important in territorial contests over resource. The relationship of the state to Maori is changing fast and often too fast. Then there’s deep institutional failure: the Royal Commission into state care, the security and intelligence failures from the Christchurch Massacre, and across the justice system continued instances of individuals unable to stop being crushed.
What could be in scope?
In no particular order.
Then you might get to who runs the show. Purposes of the Governor-General, or if we decide to remove the sovereign what if any major changes for a replacement. If they remain largely ceremonial powers, not much changes. If an active President (insert te reo equivalent if you like), a lot changes: to whom do the core branches of government answer and how including judiciary and powers of the Supreme Court, NZDF, NZ Police, and role of Prime Minister. Elected or appointed by Parliament, full can of worms.
Mechanisms to amend the Constitution.
Maybe consider direct Parliamentary representation for Realm states. Ask the regional representation question. Ask the broad question of whether we are over-governened for our size or under-governed for our diversity.
Use useful precedents like the constitutional reforms of Singapore, Denmark, Netherlands, Fiji, Australia, Jamaica, France, and Canada.
Out of scope could be annoying distractions like changing the flag, the national anthem, or the country’s name. Don’t open the box called Australia. Don’t specify any electoral system. Maybe don’t get tangled in an Upper House discussion. Give people enough to get excited about but don’t expect catharsis, cathexis, or any examination involving masks or rubber gloves.
Keep it tidy. Don’t do a Chile and jam every progressive idea you can think of in it, and then see it burn like the Hindenburg.
Aim to get the legible basics on one side of a business card.
Aim for a Big Reveal in 2036, then down the runway preparing for the Bicentennary in 2040.
2036-9 Bicentennary plans, mandate and outcomes
2033-6 Election of new entity heads, re-forming Parliament
2029-32 Engagement, legislation, process design and regulation
2023-26 Cross-Party agreement on scope, timing, and purpose
We should allow a gradual process to bed all this down. Depends on public appetite and of course on events.
It would be a job worth doing, clearly not within the appetite of this Prime Minister. But it’s well time to talk about it.