Mike Moore: Banana republic risk, without the bananas

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New Zealand's constitutional arrangements and the issue of becoming a republic will soon be on the political agenda. Here's why - and why it's dangerous.

There's almost a consensus between the parties on Australia becoming a republic. It will be a good diversion for New Zealand politicians, ironically not in a fit of homegrown nationalism, but meekly following an Australian fashion and proving the opposite of independence. And a dependence on others' moods.

The only New Zealand politician of substance who has spoken up for a republic was Jim Bolger, who did so after it became an issue in Australia - and a few weeks after a visit by Australian republican Prime Minister Paul Keating.

It was natural that most newly independent countries asserted their independence by declaring themselves free of imperial foreign crowns. New Zealand, Australia and Canada were different.

We did not, except for some indigenous people, see the British system as tyrannical. We were colonised later than most places and we sought the rights of Englishmen and all that British democracy and common law had evolved into.

The Crown was seen as the protector of Maori rights and we still speak of settlements as being between the Crown and Maori. Curiously, it took our Parliament until 1947 to finally ratify the Statute of Westminster passed by the British in 1931 granting us complete independence.

This important step was not celebrated as some historic act of separation or independence, just a natural evolution.

Why could further change be dangerous? Because it is most likely to be done in a fit of populism and will represent ad hoc change.

Governments have the right to introduce GST or not, nationalise or privatise. But issues of constitutional consequence, once made, are difficult to unmake.

We abolished our rights of appeal to the Privy Council without much debate. We rejected first-past-the-post in a public fit of disgust because politicians seemed out of control.

The promise of another referendum on the future of MMP has not eventuated. A few politicians want to abolish the Maori seats and the Treaty of Waitangi. Others want the Treaty to be our constitution.

It's not good enough to pass laws saying the law should take into account the principles of the treaty without defining what they are. The treaty is vital - if we didn't have one we would have to invent it.

But who, when, and how was it decided that we're now a bicultural society, not a multicultural nation? The evidence before our eyes tells us we are a land of many cultures.

An old multi-party consensus on issues such as electoral finance laws has recently been broken. Our political memories did not begin in 1840. We also draw on centuries of experiences before then.

No one came to New Zealand without a memory. Our Parliament still refers to Speaker's rulings based on Westminster decisions dating back hundreds of years, and so do our courts. We have much to be proud of - in a short time (150 years) we've gone from a violent, poor, tribal society to a nation in the front ranks in terms of living standards and democratic rights. I once opposed having a constitution because of our European traditions and enlightenment values, which we reject at our peril. Now I'm for change because we are eroding these age-old principles.

The present direction is visionless, dangerously ad hoc, short-term, and confusing. Democracy is about who runs the country. A constitution is about the limits of Government.

Constitutional change ought not to be rushed or hurried, and should only be entered into after deliberate, detailed and sober consideration, consultation and reflection.

My last act in Parliament was to try to get to a parliamentary select committee a very detailed private bill on a process that would move us towards a common consensus-based constitutional re-arrangement. At the time, I thought this would take about five years.

The process should not be about experimentation, nor an act of defiance, or a bill of grievances. It should be a considered, binding, evolutionary process of what's worked well so far. The process is almost as important as the result.

My bill suggested a staggered, benchmarked roadmap to arrive at a consensus on our constitutional arrangements. First, a leadership council of all the leaders of the political parties in Parliament would appoint, by consensus, an eminent persons group of respected New Zealanders, which would consult, listen and promote discussion on whether New Zealand should have a written constitution, or not.

If we are to be a republic, on which model - the US, French, Irish, or German model? There is a substantial difference.

An elected president could mean the end of our parliamentary system by establishing a potentially conflicting position of great power, but perhaps a congressional system has virtues. One attraction of the present system, a Queen or Governor General, is not the power they have but the power and prestige they deny others.

This report should also consider MMP and alternatives, the vital status of our most important historic agreement, the Treaty of Waitangi, and our special constitutional arrangements with the Pacific.

Thus, after some years of consideration, the eminent persons report would be tabled at a constitutional convention, with most delegates elected at a general election but with a representative number of elected members of our Parliament included. And also non-voting eminent people and observers from nations whose destinies we share. Making no change is an option if the case for change is not compelling.

I modelled much of this process on the Australian Constitutional Convention which I attended. Interestingly, I was the only New Zealand politician there. All previous such conventions were attended officially by New Zealand ministers.

If there is agreement at my proposed convention, the final decision must rest with the people through a referendum. The South Africans built a consensus around their constitution which, in its preamble clause says:

"We, the people of South Africa, honour those who have suffered for justice and freedom, respect those who have worked on our land to build and develop our country, and believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity."

New Zealand's system is not in a desperate state of disrepute or disrepair - it's not broken. But it could be further damaged by incremental changes.

This will be very difficult to navigate and avoid capture by entrenched interests. But we can, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "still appeal to the better angels of our nature".

Alas, without a formal process, we risk becoming a "banana republic" - without the bananas.

* Mike Moore is a former Labour Prime Minister and Director-General of the World Trade Organisation.

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