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George Gair

Serious Constitutional Issues Need Rethinking

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This article was first published in The Informer, the newsletter of former Members of Parliament, in response to criticisms about non-binding referendums. Editor Graham Kelly suggested that one of the reasons the public could be losing confidence in our parliamentary system could be the use of referendums, which he described as “non binding, well meaning, but worthless exercises, which have no teeth and simply encourage governments, of both left and right, to ignore them.” We are grateful to both Hon George Gair and Graham Kelly for enabling us to re-publish the article as a Guest Commentary for NZCPR readers.

The trouble with referendums is they inevitably must focus on single or particular issues, or specific aspects of issues, and don’t, and can’t, in their “yes or no” message, weigh the issues adequately in the wider context of society’s broad present welfare, or likely future needs.

By contrast, when major political parties, either in government or opposition, advance significance policies, they must first find broad acceptance within their respective caucuses. In a well-run and well-led parliamentary team, the concept of caucus, and the team discipline which it provides, acts as an important brake, or at least a moderating influence, against the unwise and the impetuous.

I am not suggesting referendums have no place, but I would like to feel that their use would be comparatively rare and be saved for important constitutional issues, and then only after lengthy debate and well informed public research and enquiry.

When used in such circumstances involving constitutional issues, I believe, even then, they should require a major majority one way or the other to achieve acceptance. To “only be passed by a whisker” is just not good enough.

I believe governments thinking at the time of the 1993 legislation was a wish to make a gesture of good intentions in a political climate when political parties of all shades of colour had sunk pretty well down in the public’s regard. The very pace of the major changes passed through Parliament in the second half on the 1980s, often under urgency and with little or no public debate, notwithstanding the need for and virtues of some of the measures, left much of the country somewhat shell shocked and frightened.

Then in the early 1990s a couple of sensitive broken election promises and the belt tightening response to economic and financial pressures, capped with the “mother of all budgets” turned the political landscape quite hostile. There were cries of “a plague on both your houses”.

No wonder the referendum on the future shape of the political scene to retain the then status quo of first past the post, or choose the newly publicised and widely promoted MMP was a foregone conclusion. And heaven forbid, its result was binding. What a super high tide of problems it has presented.

And those problems are not going to disappear. Indeed I believe they’re producing a festering sore which can only get worse. How much, before we see a willingness to change. One is reminded of the old saying, which politicians have heard directed at them over the years, namely “no-one expects to see the turkeys voting for an early Xmas!”

Unless there is a third world type of bloody coup or a revolution to erupt the masses, changes to the system can only develop and succeed through the political processes and the peoples will. It’s a big ask of those at the various levels in the political and parliamentary processes, but it nevertheless must be addressed.

It’s also a big ask of the more responsible levels in the media and of the many informed and responsibly minded leaders of, and advocates for, the many professional, educational, economic and social bodies and groups which can and should, play a big part in making our society work effectively. Special interests must be made to think and function in a way which generates co-operation with and positive contributions to our country and its people’s welfare.

But we’re locked in a setting at the moment where the political tail can too easily – and often does – wag the political dog! The narrowly focused political minors can force the course of the political majors, which have need to, and responsibility for, the bigger, wider scene.

If it weren’t for some very special features about this country and its people, I could easily sink into a sea of pessimism and despondency. But I don’t and it’s these features which can help us through these problems.

We are a small country with a relatively small population. The physical link between those who govern and those who are governed is much more effective than can be achieved in larger countries with much bigger populations and an inevitable remoteness between the governed and the individual citizen. Those in our political system are reachable by individual New Zealand citizens.

We have media and communication networks which can express themselves freely. My hope is that more of its elements will accept the challenge to focus on real and substantive issues and not become swamped in trivia or wallowing in rumour or headline hunting for the sake of sales or ratings, or chatter-chattering like magpies.

We have police, security and justice systems which may not be perfect, but serve us well. Corruption is relatively rare and when identified is treated with public distain and society’s laws and penalties.

We have a society where “Jack is as good as his master”. We don’t suffer from the social structures which impede development and progress in so many countries. We have a willingness to work together in times of crisis. We accept diversity of thought and speech with a tolerance not seen in many countries. We’ve pioneered political rights for women and set the pace for many social policies to assist those disadvantaged or in need.

In race relations, though we may still have some way to go, we rank with the best of countries and communities.

We’ve produced leaders in quite a number of areas and achieved in fields as diverse as science, medicine, education, adventure, sport, business, agriculture, literature, music, the arts and entertainment. To use a very relevant saying in this context, we’ve shown we can “box above our weight”.

So we have the ability to do better in re-shaping our system of democracy and how it works in our governing structures, including Parliament. We’ve got to rattle that turkey’s cage and make some progress.

We do not want, or need a written constitution. We’ll only ever want that when we have a system which we feel, after having tested it over many years, works very well for at least the great majority of us. Don’t let us add to our problems by making change even more difficult than it needs to be, or nearly impossible. Who wants a version of America’s wild-west version of a Republican “Tea Party” in any of our political parties. But of course, with Kim Dotcom on the scene I wouldn’t say that’s impossible.

It may not be necessary to remove the whole concept of proportional representation, but it doesn’t need to so effectively dominate. I believe it would work better if quite heavily down-sized. That would make a good start to the changes needed and the sooner the better.