Deborah Hill Cone: Constitution? Let's have a korero

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Talking about difficult things - such as making the Treaty supreme law - sometimes makes them worse.

Constitutional Advisory Panel would like us all to be having "deeper conversations" about constitutional issues, says Deborah Hill Cone. Photo / Thinkstock
Constitutional Advisory Panel would like us all to be having "deeper conversations" about constitutional issues, says Deborah Hill Cone. Photo / Thinkstock

Listen up, plebs. The Constitutional Advisory Panel would like us all to be having "deeper conversations" about constitutional issues. I must remember to bring it up at my son's kindy next time I'm helping set out the play-doh. "So ladies, fancy a written constitution?"

The panel, set up as part of National's agreement with the Maori Party after the 2008 election, suggests ordinary Joes who are not Beltway politics freaks ought to talk about the big constitutional issues in the same way we would talk about, say, New Zealand's Got Talent.

They suggest using social media, although when I looked on Facebook I could only find one page - and that was for the 1852 New Zealand Constitution Act. It had seven "likes".

But I'm not going to set up a group. Because I'm not sure this is a conversation we should be having at all. Oh I accept it sounds very Kumbaya and democratic that these esoteric concepts are intended to be discussed around humble water coolers and in kindy sandpits.

There is a deeply held social worker-ish belief that it is always, always good to talk about things. When in doubt, let's have a korero.

It is considered enlightened and civilised to have a dialogue.

The frequently heard edict "at least we are having the debate" suggests talking is always a healing balm. But despite the most noble of intentions, talking about difficult things - such as whether the Treaty of Waitangi should be made supreme law - does not always make them better.

It may even make them worse. I remember in about 2004 being a tiny and useless part in a forgettable TVNZ debate about race relations after Don Brash's Orewa speech.

Various commentators were flown to New Plymouth and stacked in the art gallery to talk about the Treaty with Robbie Rakete and Kerre Woodham. Everyone got about a 30-second sound bite and if anything, it seemed to make the rifts between factions even more pronounced.

I said even more stupid things than I usually do, jollied along in the name of open dialogue.

The assumption is that if you can talk about something you can fix it. But is this actually true? In the same way long-standing family conflicts are not patched up during a Christmas barbecue, some differences are not transcended by approaching them directly.

Maybe our deepest differences are too powerful; they need to be sneaked up on. The most profound differences of opinion are often mended by small unsexy everyday acts of tolerance. But the kind of people who do practice this kind of humdrum barely-noticed compassion are not the sort who are likely to be interested in erudite discussions of the nuances of entrenching the Bill of Rights.

Have you ever been to one of those houses where there is a list of family rules - a constitution - stuck up on the fridge? The contract usually declares "be kind to one another" and "no hitting". These households are usually the most angry and dysfunctional.

Families where people do show respect to each other don't do it because they have been told to, and certainly not when they are told to by the Government.

Rather they model what they see. Most of the suggestions the Constitutional Advisory Panel is considering lead to bigger government.

And despite, or perhaps because of, being such a high-powered bunch I can't imagine its members concluding their work was not necessary after all.

Maybe it would be more helpful for the panel to tell people to simply shut up and notice rather than encouraging them to jibber jabber more.

RD Laing said: "The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds."

So I'm sorry constitutional panel bigwigs, I'm not going to be joining your conversation. But I will try to notice a little more.

*Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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