Deborah Coddington

Deborah Coddington is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Deborah Coddington: Vital we have a chance to voice constitutional concerns

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In the past, surveys have shown many Kiwis feel disenfranchised; their voice counts for nothing, or they can't make a difference. Photo / Thinkstock
In the past, surveys have shown many Kiwis feel disenfranchised; their voice counts for nothing, or they can't make a difference. Photo / Thinkstock

Deborah Hill Cone shuns the idea of having a korero about New Zealand's constitutional issues (Constitution? Let's have a korero, November 26).

Instead, she says the 12 "bigwigs" who make up the Constitutional Advisory Panel should "tell people to simply shut up and notice rather than encouraging them to jibber jabber more".

It is somewhat ironic that the Bill of Rights Act 1990, one of the statutes which comprises New Zealand's constitution, permits Deborah the freedom of expression to make such dismissive statements. Another tenet of our constitution, the Rule of Law - under which everyone must obey New Zealand's laws - thankfully prevents the panel, and the politicians who appointed us, from dictating that everyone "shut up and notice".

That said, we're delighted Deborah has taken time to notice the Government-established Constitutional Review which, as she correctly wrote, is really a national conversation the likes of which we haven't seen since Hon Venn Young's National Land Use Seminars, or the Tomorrow's Schools debate.

Most organisations have some sort of constitution, written or unwritten - from big corporates to the smallest kindergarten and sports club. Groups decide together how they're going to run things, with checks and balances, and opportunities for change in the future.

But does New Zealand have a Constitution? Yes, it's just not written on one page, and no, it's not the panel's task, at the end of the exercise, to deliver Government a written constitution. Each panel member has his or her opinions, but we are there to listen, to reflect your views fairly and accurately in our report to the ministers on the points of broad consensus where further work is recommended.

In the past, surveys have shown many Kiwis feel disenfranchised; their voice counts for nothing, or they can't make a difference. So this is a chance to speak out, as the constitutional conversation spreads out around the country next year - through clubs, marae, rotary, U3A, friends around the kitchen table even, and social media. It's your constitution, and your conversation.

Some say there is no need for change, and that may in itself be their submission. Others feel passionately they have something to say. After all, the constitution touches our lives every day without our realising it. We pass our neighbour's house and remember she's having a dispute with the local council over her driveway boundary - should she be compensated, you wonder? We pass our local MP and see he's talking on his cellphone while driving - is he allowed to do that when I'm not?

At work there's a discussion about who will be the next Governor-General - who cares, it's just a figurehead with no powers, isn't it? And why did that judge throw that case out of court just because the police didn't obey the laws properly? Couldn't the police just go to the minister and get permission anyway?

You turn on the news, and there's another Treaty of Waitangi settlement being signed. What happens to the Treaty when all claims are settled, you wonder, now this is accepted as New Zealand's founding document? You go to pick veges from your garden and ask your Korean neighbour, a new New Zealander, what he understands to be the role of Te Tiriti.

The panel has already posed questions around constitutional matters to groups of well-educated New Zealanders, not constitutional experts, and elicited reactions such as, "We should know this stuff," and "I'm ashamed I've never learned more about this".

Nonetheless, their enthusiasm to know more was heartening. As was the willingness of the many groups we've spoken to who want to help us in our task.

So this much we do know: our task is a big one, and first we have to inform people. For that reason, we've produced an easy-to-read booklet (http://www2.justice.govt.nz/cap-interim/), which contains summary information about New Zealand's constitutional arrangements, the conversation so far, and the questions and perspectives that have been expressed along the way.

Deborah is wrong when she states the panel's suggestions lead to bigger government. The panel is not suggesting anything, except that people have their say and don't allow this constitutional conversation to become the property of politicians and academics, because of apathy. Your democracy depends on it.

Deborah Coddington is one of 12 members on the Government-appointed Constitutional Advisory Panel.

- NZ Herald

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