Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is a NZME. News Service journalist based in Auckland.

Constitution review panel denies 'hidden agenda'

Professor John Burrows QC. Photo / File / Tim Hales
Professor John Burrows QC. Photo / File / Tim Hales

The panel set up to review New Zealand's constitution has hit back at allegations of a hidden agenda as it embarks on a public consultation and education campaign.

The Government-appointed constitutional advisory panel launched a six-month consultation process at Te Papa in Wellington today.

Among the issues up for discussion is whether the Treaty of Waitangi should be entrenched in law.

Currently, the document is just one of a number of laws and established principles which make up New Zealand's constitution.

The panel has drawn criticism of bias, with a group of academics headed by Canterbury University law lecturer David Round saying it wants to enshrine the treaty in law with a written constitution.

But at today's launch, panel co-chairman Professor John Burrows QC denied the panel had a "hidden agenda".

"We haven't been set up to reach any foregone conclusion. The views of us members are diverse among ourselves, and if you ask for consensus from the panel on many things, I'm sure you wouldn't get it."

Panel member Sir Michael Cullen, a former treaty negotiations minister and Labour deputy prime minister, said the panel's wide variety of views allowed it to have as few assumptions as possible.

"Some people think this panel is set up to achieve a certain end, if you like, to drive a certain kind of change.

"We're here to drive a conversation and to report back to the Government on the content of that conversation, not to determine what the outcome should be at any point in the future."

Sir Michael said some people might think the treaty had not been given enough significance within the review, while others might think it had been given too much.

"Those issues are there to be discussed, but there's not an agenda about making the treaty an overriding piece of law which cancels all other law out, as some people think this panel has been set up to do. That's not our job."

Ngai Tahu leader and panel co-chairman Sir Tipene O'Regan said there were important questions about the place of the treaty after all settlements with iwi had been dealt with.

Former Silver Fern and panel member Bernice Mene said the panel's advantage was its diversity.

She welcomed discussion about the place of the treaty.

"I think the treaty is always a bit of a contentious issue for many people, or they try to avoid it altogether. So I think it's good to get it out there and to discuss it in the context of constitutional matters."

The panel's first challenge is to educate the public about the issues and get their feedback.

It has launched a campaign which includes a video starring Mene and comedian Pio Terei, fact sheets and a website where people can make submissions.

The panel will hold public meetings across the country between February and July, before considering public submissions and making recommendations to Government by the end of the year.

Among the issues up for discussion are how many seats there should be in Parliament, the length of Parliamentary terms, whether or not there needs to be a written constitution, and whether or not all laws have to be consistent with the Bill of Rights Act.
The 12-strong panel includes Waitangi Tribunal member Ranginui Walker, former MPs Deborah Coddington and John Luxton, former mayors Peter Chin and Peter Tennent, and Maori academics Leonie Pihama, Hinurewa Poutu and Professor Linda Smith.

It was set up as part of National's support agreement with the Maori Party after the 2008 election.

- APNZ

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