Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Students draw up new constitution

Otago University students Alice Osman and Louis Chambers speak at the two-day conference, where 50 students drew up a written constitution. Photo / Mark Tantrum
Otago University students Alice Osman and Louis Chambers speak at the two-day conference, where 50 students drew up a written constitution. Photo / Mark Tantrum

The Waitangi Tribunal would have binding powers to remedy Treaty breaches in a written constitution drawn up by 50 of the country's brightest young people.

The draft constitution, developed by law, history and communications students at Parliament, also called for New Zealand to become a republic and for four-year parliamentary terms.

Lead facilitator Dean Knight, from Victoria University Law School, said the group made it very clear that the Treaty of Waitangi should be central to a new constitution.

The final document, which is published online today, said: "The tribunal may provide a remedy to a claimant if a breach of a right arises from a breach of the principles of Te Tiriti."

Mr Knight noted that the gathering did not reach a consensus on this clause. "What they're signalling is enhanced powers for the Treaty of Waitangi, moving towards binding recommendations, but not necessarily going as far as striking down legislation."

At present, the tribunal could make recommendations which Government could choose to ignore.

Otago University law student Louis Chambers said the biggest sticking point in developing the document was how strong the constitution would be. "We had to ask: 'Is the constitution a symbolic document that guides the New Zealand public or is it something that you can actually go to the courts and enforce if it is not complied with?"'

The group eventually decided that the Bill of Rights would be strengthened, and the Waitangi Tribunal would be given greater powers. But ultimate responsibility would be left to Government, and the judiciary would not be able to declare any law invalid if it breached the constitution.

Mr Chambers, 22, was one of 50 students recruited by think tank the McGuinness Institute, which used the "coolest" lecturers in the country to handpick outstanding achievers.

Over a two-day conference at Parliament last month they were guided by historian Dame Claudia Orange, Constitutional Advisory Panel co-chairman John Burrows, MPs and others, but were mostly left alone to produce the constitutional blueprint.

Students agreed that the current constitution was a sterile document which young people had no say in.

It was drawn up as the result of a political crisis in 1984 in response to Prime Minister Robert Muldoon's refusal to make changes to avoid an economic crisis.

Institute chief executive Wendy McGuinness said New Zealand's constitution was piecemeal, little known and mostly buried in a Cabinet manual.

She said the students wanted the constitution to be more visible, modern, bold and unique to New Zealand - evident in the push for a republic, the emphasis on Treaty values, and the renaming of the Prime Minister as a Tumuaki (headmaster or president).

A government-appointed panel is reviewing New Zealand's written constitution and is due to report back in September next year.

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