Dr Pita Sharples: Make decisions about constitution as a family

NZ's constitution is a like a much-loved but ramshackle old bach that needs to be updated to suit a growing family. Photo / Christine Cornege
NZ's constitution is a like a much-loved but ramshackle old bach that needs to be updated to suit a growing family. Photo / Christine Cornege

The Government is about to embark on a review of New Zealand's constitution, and over the next few years, people will be asked what they think about making changes.

Our constitution determines many of the most important aspects of our New Zealand way of life, which we generally take for granted, and we rarely give the constitution much conscious thought.

The constitution is the foundation supporting our major institutions - in politics, law and society. It determines how our democracy works, our justice system and the rights and responsibilities of all citizens.

New Zealand's unique constitution is made up of a mixture of statutes, judicial decisions which have become common law and unwritten rules and conventions, which have evolved over generations of incremental changes and piecemeal reviews.

In a way, it's like a family bach which has been used for years and years and has become part of the family's traditions and identity.

It started out as quite a modest structure but over the years it's been extended and adapted, using materials that were available at the time to suit the changing needs of the family.

It has grown into the landscape. The very walls are the handiwork of our ancestors, steeped in our family history - the succession of lives, loves and dramas that make us who we are today.

We love it but, honestly, it's a bit ramshackle and maybe we need to renovate.

The first thing is to discuss this with the whole family. And to do that properly, we need to get some advice - a builder's report, if you like - on the state of the current structure.

A builder's report will help us to discuss options. An architect might suggest improvements. But in the end, the decisions are for the family to make by agreement. That means all New Zealanders.

The constitutional review will follow certain steps. Someone needs to head it - a group of ministers and MPs. Then we need a group to bring the public into talks to identify the issues to talk about and to discuss and resolve the issues we identify.

This will be the task of a Constitutional Advisory Panel of eminent people, who have some expertise or experience in constitutional issues or community leadership.

The Maori Party expects the public discussion will reflect the Treaty partnership, so a majority will not simply overrule a minority. We should expect these discussions on the constitution to take some time - years. There is no rush. We will need to think through lots of implications.

Common sense and pragmatism will be part of the decision-making - so, too, will a desire to hold on to our traditions and history. The needs of future generations will be important. Like any family discussion, the most important thing is to make sure the outcome strengthens the family.

The review will cover the size of the Parliament; the term of Parliament; Maori representation, including the Maori Electoral Option; Maori participation in elections and Maori seats in Parliament and in local government; the Bill of Rights; a written constitution, and so on. No doubt the idea of a republic will come up, too.

One of the issues Maori want to discuss is the place of Maori customs and the Treaty of Waitangi in our constitution.

For example, current adoption laws cut across the rights of birth parents, whereas in Maori tradition, the gift of a chance to raise a child (whangai) sets up an ongoing relationship between two families. How can the legal system recognise the collective rights of both families?

So the constitutional review could influence family law, the recognition of family group rights and so on.

The first stage will get under way soon. To avoid any confusion during the general election campaign and possible MMP referendum next year, things will go quiet for a while and pick up again after the elections.

There will be plenty of opportunity for everyone to have their say, and I strongly encourage you all to participate. There will be controversial, complex, emotional and sensitive issues to address.

The principles of the Treaty can help to keep the discussions on track. Let us all deal with each other in a spirit of goodwill, co-operation and the utmost good faith, to create an ideal constitutional structure for our way of life, and for future generations of New Zealanders.

* Dr Pita Sharples is co-leader of the Maori Party.

- NZ Herald

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