Written and unwritten constitutions

Debate over whether New Zealand should establish a written constitution continues, with Hamilton lawyer Thomas Gibbons having a say in NZ Herald: Written constitution unwanted and unwarranted

Sir Geoffrey Palmer and a fellow lawyer, Andrew Butler, have proposed a single written constitution, arguing that almost every other nation has a single written constitution, and – more importantly for these purposes – that such a document would be more accessible and enhance the public’s understanding of constitutional matters.

On this ground, the proposal is disingenuous. Even nations with an established single document called a “constitution” have a broader edifice of constitutional law. US constitutional scholars have come to talk of their own “unwritten” constitution.

They talk of a “thin” and a “thick” constitution: the latter being the full document, the former the part the public understands, which includes the Bill of Rights, and sometimes the Declaration of Independence, which is not part of the US constitution at all.

The reality of a written constitution:

Over the past 50 years, the US Supreme Court has invoked the US constitution in ruling on the legitimacy of abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, political campaign donations, and various other matters.

They are not expressly covered by the constitution’s text. Rather, general constitutional provisions describing such matters of freedom of speech and cruel and unusual punishment are applied to specific situations. Constitutional questions are not resolved in an ether.

A constitution is a guide rather than a definition of everything.

If Palmer and Butler’s main goal is accessibility, and public understanding of the constitution, they could as usefully advocate for more teaching of civics in schools (something Palmer has suggested elsewhere, in law review articles), they could disseminate media on constitutional issues (something Palmer has done elsewhere, via National Radio), or they could publish a new book.

They have just published a book on establishing a written constitution, which has prompted this debate.

What they don’t need to do is promote a New Zealand Constitution in the sense of a single written document of four, 40, or 400 pages.

The can do that if they like. Promoting discussion on important issues is useful.

It won’t make our constitutional law more accessible. It might even expand the unwritten constitution, through cases interpreting this new document.

Some of us quite like a system that means issues like abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, political campaign donations, and yes, even gun rights, can be decided by an elected Parliament, not unelected judges.

Elected Members of parliament versus unelected judges is an important point, probably the most critical consideration.

There is a lot of contentious debate in the US about the appointment of Supreme Court judges who get to decide on issues of major importance to the country.

The irony is that in suggesting something that is unwanted and unwarranted, Palmer and Butler are drawing public attention to the benefits of our current constitutional arrangements.

They have drawn attention to the options, which is a good thing in an open democracy.

Our current constitutional arrangements aren’t ideal, especially for a supposedly independent nation still linked to the monarchy of another country. But despite it’s imperfections it works fairly well.

It will be difficult to get popular support for a change to a written constitution. We couldn’t even engage in a sensible and civil debate over a flag change.

The Treaty of Waitangi and a New Zealand constitution would have to be inextricably linked.

I think avoidance of that debate along with apathy will mean nothing much will change constitution-wise in the foreseeable future.

Palmer and Butler answer constitution critic

Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Butler have written a book A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand which proposes a constitution.

In response Dr Noel Cox  a barrister who has been a professor of law, wrote New Zealand doesn’t need a written constitution.

Two principal difficulties immediately come to mind. The first is the question of a written entrenched constitution (one changeable only by a special process), and the second is the (not unrelated) issue of the Treaty of Waitangi.

It might be worthwhile looking at solutions within the existing structures, rather than to call for the codification and entrenchment of the constitution.

Unless they are prepared to wrestle with large issues, most contentious of which is the Treaty of Waitangi, or entrenchment, proponents of constitutional reform should tread warily.

Palmer and Butler have addressed this in Simplified constitution critical for future.

His first point assumes that a written, codified constitution cannot be flexible. We disagree. New Zealand does not need a constitution etched in stone. It needs one with the capacity of being changed either by a referendum of the people or by a special majority of 75 per cent of the members of Parliament.

This is precisely the current position in fundamental elements of the electoral system, guaranteed by section 268 of the Electoral Act 1993; it has been in place in previous legislation since 1956.

We recognise the need to keep the constitution up to date; that’s why we propose it be formally reviewed every 10 years.

Unless our constitutional machinery is kept in good order, it will deteriorate and that is what is happening to it now.

The prime danger with New Zealand’s constitution is that it can be changed at any time with a majority of one in the House of Representatives. That means that anything goes. There are no constitutional restraints except elections.

In theory ‘anything goes’ I guess, but in practice I don’t think anything like that has happened. It could in theory, but so could many things that necessarily be protected by a bit of law or a constitution.

New Zealand is a more stable democracy than many countries who have had constitutions  have been.

The US constitution  hasn’t avoided a debacle of a election that will result in a very unpopular and flawed president.

Of what does the New Zealand constitution consist? The most recent scholarly answer, not from us, is that the New Zealand constitution is located in 45 Acts of Parliament, including six passed in England, 12 international treaties, nine areas of common law, eight constitutional conventions, three-and-a-half executive instruments, one prerogative instrument, one legislative instrument and half a judicial instrument.

How many New Zealanders can find that material let alone understand it?

How many New Zealanders care? How many New Zealanders would take any notice of a simplified constitution?

Far from being unmanageable, as Cox opines, drafting a written constitution once the Crown is removed makes things much more orderly, understandable, less mysterious and more rational.

Do we want our key laws determined by ‘more rational’ judges rather than by our parliament?

We need to know who has what powers and how they must be exercised.

We should know this, or we should be able to easily find out if anything contentious comes up.

We believe that New Zealanders would welcome the opportunity to sort out where they stand and what they stand for. Based on the huge volume of submissions it received and the many public hearings it held, the Government’s own Constitutional Review Panel in 2013 noted “a consensus that our constitution should be more easily accessible and understood”, and also noted that “one way of accomplishing this might be to assemble our constitutional protections into a single statute”.

I believe that the vast majority of New Zealanders will care little or not at all about this.

A muddled and confused approach is unlikely to be sufficient for the challenges New Zealand will encounter in the future.

Clarity and simplicity are great aims but I’m not sure what constitutional challenges we face. Actually I have no idea.

What is needed is a constitution that sets out the rules, principles and processes about government in one document so they are accessible, available and clear.

We need to eliminate the need for significant unwritten constitutional conventions and customs which are unclear in important respects.

We need greater force in the protections given by our Bill of Rights.

We should at least talk about it and consider options.

Our proposed constitution aims to provide an accurate map about how we govern ourselves. We have already had helpful feedback on what we propose; we seek your views at www.constitutionaotearoa.org.nz.

Submissions seem to disappear into the website at this stage, I presume there will be some publication at some stage.

There is some activity on their Facebook and Twitter links, but the ‘conversation’ doesn’t seem to have ignited the masses yet.

 

 

A constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand?

Establishing a constitution, no longer having the Queen as the head of state, locking in a four-year election cycle, and enshrining the Treaty of Waitangi are all proposed in book by Sir Geoffrey Palmer and  Andrew Butler that will be launched next week.

There is already a website set up: A CONSTITUTION FOR AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND

Our proposal: a modern constitution that is easy to understand, reflects New Zealand’s identity and nationhood, protects rights and liberties, and prevents governments from abusing power.

NZH: Do we need a Queen anymore?

The short answer to that headline is no we don’t need a queen from the other side of the world who never comes here any more. The key questions are:

  • When will a majority of New Zealanders not want our country to be a monarchy?
  • When will our politicians give us the opportunity to become an independent country?

But the book is about a lot more than that. It aims to start ‘a conversation’ about important issues regarding the future of New Zealand.

Along with fellow lawyer Andrew Butler, Palmeris about to release A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, a book that explains – in a surprisingly easy to understand manner – why New Zealand needs a written constitution and what a first draft of that constitution entails.

It has what some would call emotive elements – ditching the Queen as the head of state, locking in a four-year election cycle, enshrining the Treaty of Waitangi – but at its heart is a fierce commitment to both protecting the rights of all New Zealanders and ensuring we all, politicians especially, know and understand the rules by which we run this little club called New Zealand.

Constitution Aotearoa might sound eye-rollingly dry but the fact is New Zealand’s current constitution is, frankly, a mess

Because we have not had any major issues with being tied to the British monarchy and with not having a constitution politicians and many people have preferred to defer to the status quo.

Some people strongly believe in the monarchy being attached to New Zealand, others see that doing nothing is the easiest or cheapest option.

“In a democracy you ought to know what your rights and responsibilities are and you ought to know how the system of government works, you ought to know what the rules are,” Palmer says. “In New Zealand you can’t find out because the constitution is all over the place, it’s inaccessible.

“What you want is a document that sets out who the head of state is and what the head of state does, what the Parliament is, how it’s elected and what it can do and what the judiciary can do.

Sounds like a sensible tidy up but it is likely to be highly contentious.

Bizarrely, New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world (alongside Britain and Israel) that doesn’t have a written constitution. The fact we don’t have a clear set of rules to follow, or any of the checks and balances inherent in a written constitution, means our politicians can do whatever they like as long as they get a majority in the house.

Great Britain at least has the House of Lords to act as a checkpoint for legislation while Israel has 11 basic laws that set out how the country should be governed.

Without those rudimentary measures, New Zealand is open to a worst case scenario where one powerful person could influence Cabinet, which in turn controls Parliament, which enacts laws the courts cannot overturn … if you think it sounds like a dictatorship you’re not far wrong.

Those who call John Key a dictator will feel vindicated.

The potential for that dictatorship has been muted by MMP but “New Zealand is still very friendly to executive power”, Palmer says, meaning Cabinet can turn anything it fancies into law.

“There are considerable dangers in that,” he adds. “Parliament can easily be dominated by the governing party, and Parliament will do what the governing party wants. The system we call parliamentary sovereignty, which means Parliament can do whatever it wants, becomes, in New Zealand, that the executive [Cabinet] can do whatever it likes.”

Most of our Cabinets have been reasonably responsible, but many will remember Rob Muldoon’s increasingly messy attempts to mould the economy and country by his dictat – the country ended up teetering on the brink of going broke.

And some on the left still wail about the reforms of Roger Douglas and the Lange led Labour government that supposedly imposed a neo-liberal disaster.

Head of State

Palmer believes it’s inevitable New Zealand will become a republic – in fact, he argues that we are already a “de facto” republic in as much as the Queen doesn’t exercise any power here. What power she does have, the so-called royal prerogative, is described as “shadowy”, “murky” and so poorly defined it may as well be abolished.

Palmer rules out an elected president, saying it’s too contrary to our national personality and character. He rules out the Prime Minister taking on the largely ceremonial role as he or she is overburdened as it is.

In the end, Constitution Aotearoa lands on an updated variant of the Governor-General, appointed by Parliament for a term of five years. A public vote on the Head of State is rejected for the simple reason there would be no power invested in the role. Plus, he adds, if the public voted for a head of state it risks becoming a political process.

The Royal Family, as a result, would remain “popular celebrities” and New Zealand could send a message to the world – and to ourselves – that we are a mature and independent nation, but one that stays within the Commonwealth, maintaining our historical links to Britain.

I agree that a powerless figurehead should be appointed by Government rather than voted on.

I shudder to think how bad the bitching would become if we had a chance to vote for John Key or Helen Clark as head of state, the petty bitterness against both is entrenched.

Treaty of Waitangi

Constitution Aotearoa has the Treaty of Waitangi unambiguously at its heart. In fact, Palmer, argues, it is effectively New Zealand’s first constitutional document and the Government’s “moral and political claim to democratic legitimacy rests of the Treaty”.

By its nature as a founding document and in the way it is now interwoven in modern society, the Treaty is integral to New Zealand’s current (unwritten) constitution. But like that complex and confusing constitution in the clouds, the Treaty itself is shrouded in uncertainty and “jagged legal recognition”. In other words, it has no independent legal status.

Palmer wants to give the Treaty “clear and certain” status.

A Supreme Court, acting under the new constitution, would also bring thoughtful analysis of how the Treaty works in modern New Zealand, ending the current “ungainly, unclear and untidy” legal treatment of the Treaty.

How we treat the  Treaty is also certain to be highly contentious but the reality is we have the Treaty of Waitangi and need to work out how to deal with it sensibly and fairly.

Constitution Aotearoa will officially be released at Parliament on Wednesday and has a complementary website where Kiwis can make submissions. Palmer says the book and website should be seen as the “start of a conversation”.

Once the submissions have been taken, he and Butler will write a revised version. After that it would be up to government to take hold of the issue. Palmer’s hope is that within five years New Zealanders will be voting in a referendum on whether to adopt Constitution Aotearoa.

“New Zealand is relatively well governed compared with a lot of countries but it could be a lot better.”

A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, by Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Butler, Victoria University Press. Available September 21. $25.

www.constitutionaotearoa.org.nz

The proposed Constitution: the full text

I’d like Your NZ to be a part of the conversation. Whether we end up changing anything or not we should seriously talk about it.

Lecretia Seales assisted dying case versus pressure group inteference

Lecretia Seales has a brain tumour and has taken her case to court to clarify whether her doctor can assist her death so she can avoid extended suffering. Stuff reports:

Terminally ill Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales…, 42, has an inoperable brain tumour and has begun a court case in which she wants to test the law.

In the High Court at Wellington on Tuesday, her lawyer, Andrew Butler, said the case was about clarifying the criminal law, not changing it or trying to “lift a ban”.

It was only about Seales, and raised quite narrow issues that would not have any application to the elderly or disabled, for instance.

Seales was not interested in having a big debate about euthanasia, he said.

Seales wants to make sure her GP would not face charges under the Crimes Act if or when Seales was helped to die. The doctor’s name is suppressed.

Sounds sad, and sounds like a sensible test for the law.

It’s fairly well known that doctors and others able to administer drugs already ease peoples’ deaths. I’ve seen this happen with someone whose death I was closely associated with.

So it makes sense to clarify the law around this. Otherwise some people are lucky enough to get help to ease suffering, while others don’t have the choice.

And because it happens in a grey area of the law and of medical ethics it is easier for misuse or mistakes to happen.

If the law was clarified people who are suffering and dying wouldn’t have to deal with ambiguity and secrecy. It would also make it easier for families – the example I was associated with was bloody difficult to deal with until I understood what was happening.

But ‘special interest groups’ are trying to interfere with Seales’ case.

Seales faces attempts by special interest groups to have a say on her legal plea to be allowed the option of a medically assisted death.

Three parties are asking to be allowed to “intervene” in the case.

For the Human Rights Commission, Matthew Palmer, QC, said it was not a normal “adversarial” case. The orders being sought would seem to offer assisted dying in certain circumstances, and that had wide implications for society.

“If ever there was a case of widespread public importance, this is it.”

The commission would offer independent submissions and would not take a position on the ultimate question in the case, he said.

At least they are trying to be balanced and neutral on the emotional aspects.

The defendant in Seales’ case is the attorney-general, who is currently National MP Chris Finlayson. His lawyer, Paul Rishworth, QC, said it plainly raised issues of significant public importance, and the parties that wanted to intervene might be able to help the court.

But the Crown could gather evidence from palliative care specialists and others to cover the issues the case raised.

That’s up to the crown, but other groups seem intent on using Seales’ case to push their own.

The Care Alliance represents groups opposed to physician-assisted suicide and physician-assisted euthanasia. Its lawyer, Victoria Casey, said palliative care professionals and some groups representing the disabled were directly affected, and their views should be heard.

Seales is opposing them being allowed to take part in the case, but Casey said members of the alliance were best placed to give evidence and analysis of relevant issues.

The Voluntary Euthanasia Society is also seeking to intervene.

Kathryn Davenport, QC, for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, said Seales was asking for a personal decision, but the case could not be seen in isolation.

If Seales was happy for this to happen then fair enough. But it sounds like she doesn’t want any interference.

Both sides of the euthanasia debate want to hijack Seales’ case to promote their own interests. It’s not their case. They can take their own legal action if they want to.

Seales’ case could easily be seen in isolation. Sure it would affect other cases, that’s how our legal system works.

3 News reported:

Care Alliance says if Ms Seales gets her wish it would set a dangerous precedent and could be applied to anyone with a terminal illness.

That sounds like scaremongering. It could be applied to anyone, whether ill or not. But that’s a stupid exaggeration.

The whole point of Seale’s case is she is requesting the option of an assisted death.She is prepared to test it in court.

The courts are never going to start ‘applying law’ to people who don’t want it applied to them.

Obviously time is important for Seales

Justice David Collins said he would give his decision as soon as possible on whether the three interveners were allowed to be part of the case. The full hearing is due to start on May 25.

3 News: in a blog post, Ms Seales’ husband Matt said: “If Lecretia were to commit suicide, she would need to do it alone, as anyone else present would risk a criminal conviction. The act would be extremely traumatic for her and her family. It’s not an option.”

Sadly now she has publicised her situation the risk of scrutiny and criminal conviction is much greater.

The court should do what it can to make a fair legal ruling. Special interest groups should stop pushing their own interests.

Seales is making brave moves, by openly her facing options as she dies, and by doing something that attracts publicity.

The law may or may not benefit her. But the special interest groups should back off unless their input is asked for.