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David Round

Government’s constitutional review sham

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New Zealand’s constitution is working perfectly adequately. Nothing is broken; nothing requires fixing.

But the government, at the Maori Party’s behest, established a ‘Constitutional Advisory Panel’ to consider (as well as a number of obvious political non-starters) ‘the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in our constitution, and how our legal and political systems can reflect tikanga Maori’1. Rahui Katene, the Maori Party’s constitutional spokesman, announced that ‘the Treaty must be the backbone for constitutional change’, that the Party’s ‘ultimate goal…is to ensure that the Treaty is given proper recognition’, and that our constitutional arrangements must ‘allow for full engagement and recognition by tangata whenua’2~ which, by implication, does not occur under current arrangements.

The Panel’s whole inquiry must be conducted ‘in ways that reflect the Treaty relationship’ and ‘in ways that reflect the partnership model’3. That alone will predetermine many of its findings.

The Panel’s twelve members are racially selected; five European New Zealanders, five Maori, one Pacific Islander and one Asian. Several Maori members have long been vehement supporters of special Maori status; one European member has very recently announced her commitment to the Treaty as our ‘founding document’. Another acts as a consultant for Tuwharetoa.

The material which the Panel has already produced to ‘guide’ public participation has a distinct pro-Treaty slant and contains many statements which could well be argued, at the very least, to be actively misleading4.

All these things point in one particular direction; and politics is a dirty and treacherous business. Yet Sir Michael Cullen, one of this Panel’s members, insists that the Panel has a completely open mind. Its sole concern is merely to ‘stimulate debate’ and report back to the government.

If you believe that, you will believe anything.

Sir Michael, a seasoned politician, is adept at making soothing noises. But we have often heard these reassurances before. ‘This is only a proposal.’ ‘You’ll have an opportunity to have your say.’ And then, before we know where we are, it is too late. The last thirty years have been characterised by increasingly undemocratic arrogance by both National and Labour governments. (Sadly, the official panel’s terms of reference do not cover any inquiry into how that might be remedied.) There is a saying that if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, then it probably is a duck. By the same token, this allegedly impartial inquiry looks, walks and sounds like a jack-up, laying the foundations for a disastrous and irrevocable betrayal of the interests of most New Zealanders.

The Independent Constitutional Review Panel, which I have the honour to chair, is deeply worried that no-one seems to be asking the really important questions. New Zealanders in the last thirty years have displayed exceptional generosity of spirit and patience in trying ~ once again ~ to lay racial issues to rest. Yet the net result has been the opposite. Demands continue and escalate for yet more resources, and now for entrenched political privilege and power as well. There is never the slightest expression of gratitude for what we have done already. Race relations deteriorate disastrously. Surely it is timely to ask whether the policies of the last generation have been leading us in the right direction. What policies and laws will best promote peaceful and harmonious race relations and national unity and prosperity? But instead, radical misinterpretations of the Treaty are regarded as a self-evident good.

Sir Michael should surely be thanking the Independent Panel for promoting the discussion he claims to desire. But instead, he accuses it of ‘fevered imaginations’ and ‘conspiracy theories’. In other words, he and his official panel are not interested in hearing what many New Zealanders have to say.

There is yet another panel, an ‘iwi constitutional working group’ commissioned by the Iwi Leaders Group. Margaret Mutu, that working group’s chair, has just complained5that Maori ‘have no constitutional rights’ and ‘are not going to get them until there is a written constitution’. Now that is extreme stuff; yet ominously, Sir Michael does not bother condemning it at all. That iwi group, too, is far better resourced, organised and influential than our humble Independent Panel. So why Sir Michael’s silence? The not unreasonable explanation is that he does not think the iwi group is extreme at all.

Constitutions are fundamentally important documents. Their words are not just meaningless platitudes, but have profound effects. This current review is radical Maoridom’s big chance ~ and our country’s peril. If Maori can establish a guaranteed special constitutional position, they will have the whip hand for ever. That would be disastrous for our nation. Yet a leader of the review has just condemned those daring to raise these issues as extremists. We have every reason to be very worried.

  1. Dr Peter Sharples, when announcing the review; quoted in D.J.Round, Two Futures: A Reverie on Constitutional Review (2011) 12 Otago LR 525
  2.  Ibid
  3. Terms of Reference, ibid
  4. See analysis by D.J.Round in the New Zealand Centre for Political Research electronic newsletter, 4th November 2012
  5. Press, 5th February 2013, p. 4