Compulsory voting and brussel sprouts

Making something compulsory because many people don’t like doing it is a daft approach with anything, and especially with democracy.

Hardly anyone likes brussel sprouts but that’s no good reason to make eating them compulsory.

Voting should be a choice and not forced by the State.

Guyon Espiner/RNZ has just done a length interview with ex Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer – see The Reformer – Geoffrey Palmer: Prime Minister 1989-90

Picking up on something from this NZ Herald reports:

New Zealand should adopt Australian rules and make it illegal not to vote, former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer says.

Palmer…told Radio NZ’s Guyon Espiner that voter apathy had led to Trumpery and Brexit.

“Democratic government around the western world is in some sort of crisis,” Palmer said.

“Look at the level of voting in the 2016 New Zealand municipal elections – hardly anyone votes. And yet we’ve got a supercity in Auckland with enormous powers – why would they not vote?

“It’s quite hard to understand. Are they turned off by it? Do they think it doesn’t matter?”

Voting in both local government and parliamentary elections should be enforced, Palmer said.

It’s not hard to understand why many voters might be turned off voting for politicians if people like Palmer try to force them to vote.

There’s a number of things wrong with what Palmer says in this one short article excerpt.

“voter apathy had led to Trumpery and Brexit”

That was in the US and UK, both very different situations to New Zealand.

If Australia, Indonesia and Fiji dictated laws and regulations in New Zealand I think there would be a lot of objections to ‘union’, as there have been in the UK.

If we had an election choice like Trump versus Hillary Clinton there would be voter despair here too.

Voter apathy is because politicians and politics don’t appeal to a lot of people – especially when they try to force things on you like compulsory voting.

“Democratic government around the western world is in some sort of crisis”

“Around the Western world” and “crisis” are both exaggerations, possibly massive exaggerations.

And I see little if any sign of crisis in democracy in New Zealand. It would be ridiculous trying to force Kiwis to vote because Aussies have had a high turnover of Governments – and ironically voting is compulsory in Australia.

“Look at the level of voting in the 2016 New Zealand municipal elections – hardly anyone votes.

Many people did not vote, but many people did vote. There are a number of reasons for low turnout in local body elections.

Most people find local body politics uninteresting. Most people know little or nothing about most candidates. Local body ballot papers are bulky and confusing.

And yet we’ve got a supercity in Auckland with enormous powers – why would they not vote?

In last year’s local body elections the two largest mayoralty contests were foregone conclusions so there was little to inspire voters.

In Auckland Phil Goff was chosen by media to be mayor months before the election, and he has weak opponents.

In Christchurch Lianne Dalzeil had two opponents, John Minto who had moved down from Auckland to try to start a socialist revolution, and another guy who stands a lot and campaigns very little.

“It’s quite hard to understand. Are they turned off by it?”

It’s not hard to understand at all. Yes, many people are turned off by politicians and ex politicians who are totally out of touch with ordinary people’s lives and who try to force them to do things they don’t want to do.

“Do they think it doesn’t matter?”

Many people do think that their voting doesn’t matter, that it wouldn’t change anything much for them. And that it doesn’t matter which of National or Labour leads the Government.

“Voting in both local government and parliamentary elections should be enforced”.

Hardly anyone likes brussel sprouts but that’s no good reason to make their consumption compulsory.

Palmer could try forcing people to vote, and while they are at the booth force them to eat some veges, but I don’t think that would go down very well.


If politicians want more people to vote for them they should earn support, not try to force it.

If disinterested uninformed are forced to vote we are likely to get an uninformed result – or silly results due to protest voters.

Australia’s compulsory voting is in part they reason they have fringe parties who sometimes hold the balance of power, see The rise of `fringe’ parties.

Certainly attempts should be made to inform people more and encourage them to vote, starting with civics education in schools.

But if people don’t want to vote, and if people don’t want to be informed, then they should not be forced to vote.

We are better pushing for quality votes, not quantity votes.

And if we get better quality parties and candidates then more people might be inclined to vote.

However there is one problem with modern democracy in New Zealand.

Under MMP we have tended to have steady stable predictable governments that don’t  swing and knee jerk wildly.

Good government should mainly mean quietly administering the country in the background, helping where necessary but not interfering in people’s lives.

A good government will be largely anonymous. Politics shouldn’t be a lolly scramble vote bribing disruptive imposer of unnecessary laws and regulations.

If that means less people are interested in voting then so be it.

As long as we are all able to vote if we choose then I don’t see what the problem with falling turnout is.

Palmer seems to be looking to regulate to solve a problem that doesn’t really need fixing – and certainly shouldn’t be fixed by force.

Many people see politicians as the see brussel sprouts – distasetful.

Perhaps politicians should try offering a better flavour.

The 9th floor – Geoffrey Palmer

Sir Geoffrey Winston Russell Palmer KCMG AC QC  became the 33rd Prime Minister of New Zealand in August 1989. He was rolled by Mike Moore in September 1990, two months before an election that Labour crashed in.

Guyon Espiner (RNZ) is doing a series of interviews with five ex Prime Ministers., starting with Palmer.

The Standard has a summary in RNZ: The 9th floor – Palmer

The Reformer – Geoffrey Palmer: Prime Minister 1989-90

NZ’s earliest living Prime Minister begins the series reflecting on the revolutionary fourth Labour government and his year as one of its three Prime Ministers.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer was one of New Zealand’s most prolific lawmakers and reformers, but a reluctant politician.

Imagine a country where the Prime Minister set the price of basic goods. Where the Cabinet, without having to even put it to a vote in Parliament, decided the wages you get and the taxes and interest rates you pay.

That was the country Geoffrey Palmer was determined to change when he entered Parliament in 1979. It was an economy, he told The 9th Floor, that no young New Zealander would recognise. … Palmer, a constitutional lawyer, describes Prime Minister Robert Muldoon as running an elected dictatorship between 1975 and 1984. It’s a big claim. …

Ultimately of course Palmer would get his chance to run the country too. He was Prime Minister for 13 months sandwiched between David Lange and Mike Moore, who a desperate Labour party turned to just two months before the 1990 election in a bid to save the furniture.

So what was it like to run the country? What is it like to be Prime Minister? “I found being the leader a nuisance,” Palmer told us. …

RNZ report and audio: full hour-long interview

Palmer is an essential voice on what it means to exercise power – precisely because he never wanted it and remains highly sceptical of those who do.

Palmer is worth listening to but not necessarily heeding. He has proposed a written constitution that doesn’t seem to have excited many, and he has proposed making voting compulsory – see next post.

Comments at The Standard suggest that Palmer is not revered on the left, but being associated with the Lange/Douglas era of reform is an instant fail for many.

Sanctuary lead off.

That went a long way to re-confirming my view of Geoffrey Palmer as a very intelligent uber-technocrat completely besotted with his own cleverness.

The man has the certainty and fanaticism of the technocrat, the arrogance of a self-regarding intellectual and the political nous of a fool. He was, and remains, a very dangerous conviction politician with scant regard for the opinions of the hoi polloi.

Listening to Palmer, the viciously toxic culture of arrogance of the Roger Douglas era Labour cabinet comes flooding back.

He followed up:

Nothing wrong with being clever, but being a clever clogs who projects that as an intellectual hauteur is IMHO an absolutely fatal and fundamental flaw in a (so called in this case) left wing politician.

Palmer’s ability to diagnose the ills of the world are not particularly unique, you or I could have just have easily rattled of the list of fairly trite topics – climate change, Trump, the crisis of democracy – he did. What struck me about Palmer was his unerring technocratic ability to correctly identify a crisis then just as unerringly use that crisis as a vehicle to push an agenda driven and completely incorrect solution.

For instance, the crisis of democracy and voting won’t be fixed by a written constitution or fiddling with how we vote. Palmer’s constant fetishisation of mechanistic solutions to political problems with their origin in fundamental clashes between democracy and authoritarian global capitalism is entirely keeping with the machine like mind and lack of imagination of the high priesthood of neo-liberal technocrats across the West.

Palmer is more suited to being a legal academic than a political leader or reformer.

He comes across as too theoretical and not practical.

Constitution promoted on earthquakes and Brexit

Geoffrey Palmer is pushing his case for a written constitution again, this time using earthquakes and Brexit as justification.

Stuff: New Zealand is one of three countries without a written constitution: time for change

A constitution could enshrine property rights, which were poorly protected in the red zone following the Christchurch earthquakes, writes Geoffrey Palmer.

OPINION: In our recently published book, A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, Andrew Butler and I propose a written constitution for New Zealand.

New Zealand is one of only three countries without a written constitution.

That might be sort of correct. Most countries have single document constitutions. There are conflicting claims about exceptions. One Wikipedia page lists:

  • Codified (in a single document) most of the world constitutions
  • Uncodified (fully written in few documents) San Marino, Israel, Saudi Arabia
  • Uncodified (Partially unwritten) Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom

To understand the principal rules of how public power is exercised in New Zealand you have to wade your way through a jumble of statutes – some from New Zealand, but quite a few very old ones from England; a plethora of obscure conventions, letters patent and manuals; and a raft of court decisions. How they all mesh together is obscure and unclear. 

We share this untidy approach to constitutional law with the UK. Anyone who thinks that that’s a situation worth preserving just needs to look at what’s happening over there at the moment.  Brexit has created a massive constitutional crisis. A significant factor is that the constitutional rules there are so unclear, no one knows who has the power to get the UK out of the EU.

In the UK it is more a crisis of confidence in government being dictated to by the European Union.

Ironically the European Union wrote a draft constitution that was signed by the 25 states that were members in 2004 and ratified by 18 of them, but French and Dutch voters rejected it in 2005.

This evolved into the Treaty of Lisbon that was ratified in 2009.

The Treaty of Lisbon (initially known as the Reform Treaty) is an international agreement which amends the two treaties which form the constitutional basis of the European Union (EU). The Treaty of Lisbon was signed by the EU member states on 13 December 2007, and entered into force on 1 December 2009.

– Wikipedia:

BBC: Q&A: The Lisbon Treaty

The Lisbon Treaty became law on 1 December 2009, eight years after European leaders launched a process to make the EU “more democratic, more transparent and more efficient”.

Like the proposed European constitution before it, the treaty is often described as an attempt to streamline EU institutions to make the enlarged bloc of 27 states function better. But its opponents see it as part of a federalist agenda that threatens national sovereignty.

I don’t think the EU was known for efficiency, and it’s lack of democracy for member states  and threats to sovereignty, perceived or real, were significant factors in the Brexit debate and vote.

Back to Palmer:

“How is any of this constitutional stuff relevant to my life?” is a question we are often asked. Cantabrians know the answer. It’s when the chips are down and there is a crisis in place, that the dangers of short-term politics can overpower longstanding rights and principles. Not because those rights and principles shouldn’t apply, but because the political imperative is to be seen to do something and do something radical and urgent. The rights of individuals can get lost.

In its recently released report “Staying in the Red Zones”, the Human Rights Commission calmly and coolly assessed the Government’s treatment of homeowners in the red zone. The report concluded: “The right to property is fragile in New Zealand. Property rights need to be better enshrined in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act”.

But I haven’t seem much sign of Cantabrians, nor the rest of New Zealanders, clamouring for a written constitution.

The latest earthquakes north of Christchurch (Culverden, Kaikoura, Seddon and Wellington) and the lengthy sorting out of the problems created by them are more likely to distract from rather than drive people to setting up a constitution.

The earthquakes have broken a lot of things. These need fixing.

New Zealand’s lack of a single written constitution (the Treaty of Waitangi is sometimes referred to as a constitution but it is far from comprehensive) seems for most people to be in the ‘if it ain’t broke why fix it?’ category.

And there are fears that trying to debate and formulate a constitution will create seismic fractures in our society.

Constitutional Advisory Panel: A Written Constitution

The Panel recommends the Government:

  • notes that although there is no broad support for a supreme constitution, there is considerable support for entrenching elements of the constitution
  • notes the consensus that our constitution should be more easily accessible and understood, and notes that one way of accomplishing this might be to assemble our constitutional protections into a single statute
  • notes people need more information before considering whether there should be change, in particular information about the various kinds of constitution, written and otherwise, and their respective advantages and disadvantages
  • supports the continued conversation by providing such information, and notes that it may be desirable to set up a process whereby an independent group is charged with compiling such information and advancing public understanding

Palmer’s project: 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.

The United States of America, with a famous constitution, is struggling with all of those things right now in the aftermath of a very divisive democratic election, during the transition to power of president-elect Donald Trump.

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

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.

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.

Q & A – economy, Trump, ship visits and corrections

Today on Q & A (9 am, TV1):

Today : another week of warnings about the economy – Corin Dann talks solutions with Grant Robertson and David Seymour.

Whena Owens vists Mangere and talks to a community that says Corrections is dumping too many offenders in their suburb-are they being treated unfairly?

Jack Tame reports from Ohio where he interviews two former Presidential advisors – what does Trump need to do to win?

Sir Geoffrey Palmer talks to Corin Dann about upcoming US ship visit – a victory for NZ? And why the change of heart now?

How would a Trump presidency deal with our nuclear free legislation? A Clinton presidency (the last one let the US hissy fit fester away).

Grant Robertson’s solution on the economy – “build wealth from the ground up” – fancy phrase #1.

“Yes there will be more spending”.

Many fancy phrases with little apparent substance.

A written constitution?

Constitutional law expert (and former MP and Prime Minister) Sir Geoffrey Palmer has said that it is “time for New Zealand to draw up its own constitution and a 40-page document would be enough”.

Perhaps it is time to seriously consider a constitution but the 40 page suggestion seems a bit odd. A constitution should be as long as it needs to be.

Stuff: Time for a 40-page New Zealand constitution, says Sir Geoffrey Palmer

Palmer has long advocated greater attention to the country’s constitutional laws but said he had reached “a new plateau”.

In Nelson to address the Spirited Conversations group on this subject, he said he hadn’t before advocated a full written constitution.

The architect of the 1986 Constitution Act and the 1990 Bill of Rights Act, he said an entrenched bill of rights was no longer enough.

“I think you have to look at the basic institutions of government, define their powers and set them out.”

“It would have to be easy to understand. You don’t want it written in legal gobbledegook. It has to be an instrument that ordinary people can get to grips with.”

“The difficulty with our existing arrangements is that they are the the preserve of a constitutional elite who look at these things and understand them and argue about them, but no one else is involved.”

Palmer said the flag debate – he advocated change but didn’t like the new design on offer – showed how passionately New Zealanders cared about national identity.

“It is very interesting to me as a constitutional lawyer to see this quest for identity.

“If you want to know what sort of country you are, the first place you look is your constitution. We haven’t got one in that sense.”

If the flag debate leads on to a serious discussion about whether we have a constitution or not, and if we have one what it should cover, then it will have been a worthwhile exercise and worth the effort and the expense.

Palmer delivered this paper to the Māori Law Review in 2013:

Māori, the Treaty and the Constitution – Rt. Hon. Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC


These developments, and indeed later developments, have meant that substantial grievances of the Māori minority have a good chance of being handled in a principled fashion. Insulation from the ravages of extreme opinion has been achieved. The settlements have become mainstream.

We have travelled a long distance with the Treaty, and much of what was proposed by making the Treaty part of an entrenched Bill of Rights has been achieved. Yet the current position with the Treaty does not seem to me to be sustainable long term.It is half in and half out of the legal system.

From a constitutional point of view the developments have been significant, because in many situations the courts are empowered to rule on treaty issues as to whether requirements have been met.

The courts are better protectors of “discrete and insular minorities” than the majoritarian legislature, even under MMP. I remain of the opinion that the Treaty, like the Bill of Rights, should become part of New Zealand’s new superior law Constitution.

We now know a great deal about how the courts will go about the task of interpreting the Treaty, just as we know how the courts go about interpreting the Bill of Rights Act.

We have had more than twenty years’ experience of both. The Supreme Court decision on Mighty River Power in 2013 raised barely a ripple. We cannot go backward on these issues, but we need to summon up the political courage to go forward.

Edited text of an interview with Bill Moore prior to Palmer’s Nelson address:

What will you be talking about tonight?

Sir Geoffrey Palmer: The need to modernise New Zealand’s constitution. The first thing about the constitution is that we never discuss it,  and one of the reasons is that you can’t find it anywhere.

We’re very unusual in that respect, almost all countries in the world except three have a written, codified constitution. We don’t.

If we want to find the constitution, first you’ve got to look in New Zealand’s statute book. Then you’ve got to look at some ancient English statutes which are in force here.

Then you’ve got to look as well at very curious instructions to the Governor-General, because that is part of the constitutional structure, the Letters Patent.

Then you’ve got to look at a whole lot of court cases. Then you’ve got to look at a whole lot of commentary. It’s hardly surprising that we have a low level of civic virtue when we can’t find the constitution – and indeed neither can the specialist.

That means in substance that we have a political constitution. It evolves with events. Political events change the constitution. It has very insecure foundations.

We do have more of it written down than we used to, we have the Constitution Act of 1986, we have the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.  What I am saying is, we should write more of it down and we should therefore have some place where people can find out what the fundamental rules of Government are.

Then, when they can read it, you can use that as an instrument of educating people. New Zealanders have no idea what the constitutional arrangements of the country are.  They just don’t know.

So how can you have a useful, relevant discussion about the adequacy of your constitutional arrangements if no one knows what they are?

Now that is the fundamental point, and the fundamental argument that I make is that you should write it all down in one place.

One of the things that’s been so interesting in recent months has been the flag debate. What it has said to me is, New Zealanders are very interested in their own identity. They debated it with great passion. It is very interesting to me as a constitutional lawyer to see this quest for identity.

If you want to know what sort of country you are, the first place you look is your constitution. We haven’t got one in that sense.

Then you have to have a debate about what should be in it, then about how you would adopt it. That’s a long debate – but it seems to me that the flag debate has opened up these issues and that is to be encouraged.

I wish New Zealanders would think about these rules under which politics are conducted. They don’t. Most people see the government decision. They don’t really care how it was arrived at.

But the process of arriving at it, the rules of the game are very important, and we on the whole don’t know what they are.

How succinct could that document be?

Sir Geoffrey Palmer: I think 40 pages, I think it could be easily done in that space. It would have to be easy to understand.

A constitution has to belong to the people. We sort of don’t think that here, we think there’s them and us, the governed and the governors, we don’t quite get that this is a democratic government, it’s self-government by us, and that’s how a representative government should work.

Most countries get their constitutions through some sort of crisis.

We don’t have crises here – we’re a pretty well-governed country by international standards. It just could be better, and it would be much better if people understood where they stand in relation to the government. And they tend not to.

What would the fundamentals be?

You would have to set out what the powers of the Parliament are, and what the powers of executive government are. Often in New Zealand people think they’re the same thing. They’re not.

Then you’d have to set out what the powers of the judiciary are. Those are the three main branches of  government.

Then you’d have to set out what the powers of the head of state are.

Then you’d want to have the Bill of Rights in it.

How does the Treaty of Waitangi fit in? 

Sir Geoffrey Palmer: Well the treaty is, as Lord Cooke once said, the founding document of New Zealand. It actually makes government here legitimate, otherwise it’s a massive conversation.

So you have to give recognition to that. It’s a very controversial subject. When we extended the range of the Waitangi Tribunal back to 1840, I never got as many letters in politics on any subject as on that.

If the treaty means anything, it means that Maori have to be consulted. That’s the essential obligation of it.