Bruce Bisset: Let's get the constitution right


With a new heir to the throne at the same time as we're losing fundamental freedoms and privacy, it's timely to be having a conversation about a constitution - since we lack any formal "one-stop" document defining citizens' rights.

Sure, there's Te Tiriti, but that's an agreement between peoples at best, between Maori and the Crown at worst, and is a piece of string when it comes to "rights".

Then there's the Bill of Rights Act, which - along with gender and race and children and other "parts" of the rights equation - is a reflection of United Nations globalspeak; a good start, but somewhat sanitised by process and not necessarily apt.

Regardless of how many commissions we have examining breaches of this or that, there is no robust over-arching framework to tie things together. Nothing collectively agreed to stand on, and by which to fairly judge dissent.

Take the spying/privacy debate. Here, such laws are an exercise in executive power wielded by right of governance; and with no single mechanism to challenge legislation except within Parliament itself, if it's not defeated there, tough.

Even when every other part of the system, including judicial and state services, objects to a proposed bill, the government can lawfully proceed to enact it. Leaving ordinary citizens no avenue except the street to protest.

Whereas in the United States, the whole argument is bumped up one level; the various homeland security measures being rolled out to supposedly counter terrorism are weighed against the rights enshrined in their constitution. So an executive order seen to breach the constitution is argued to be unlawful, and could - it's happened before - be struck down in court.

It's an option we don't possess. Instead, we have only the theoretical backstop of the monarch, who can - if she (or he) deems a government to be acting unlawfully against the democratic will of the people - dissolve Parliament. That's a pretty thin likelihood. Especially with a new great-grandchild to coo over. Of course even with a constitution you're not guaranteed a robust result. The Obama administration's directives to enshrine laws that can see citizens seized, tortured, held indefinitely without disclosure of evidence let alone a trial, and without even notifying their families, stands a good chance of being upheld. Mainly because the courts are ruled by politically-appointed judges, and the opposition Republicans support these measures.

That creates a constitutional crisis for America, which could end in tears. Here, we won't even have that cold comfort. But so long as our judiciary can be kept more-or-less independent, the power of a constitution to reign in any executive excess is one we should welcome. Naturally it has to be sound, and uphold equality and liberty above all; to work as well for the poor as it does the rich, the brown or yellow as well as the white, and the atheist and the fundamentalist. Putting a document like that together is a challenge and an opportunity. But given what we now understand of the world, our country has a chance to birth something better than anything that's gone before.

The deadline for submissions to the "Constitution Conversation" is Wednesday.

Instead of treating this as a sop or a set-up, give its potential the benefit of the doubt, and have your say.

Meanwhile if you're at all concerned at the destruction of the rule of law, join myself and others at Memorial Square in Napier at 2pm tomorrow to protest the GCSB/TICS bills. Let's show there is still power in the people. That's the right of it.

  • Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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