Fresh eyes look at weighty issue

By Laurel Stowell


It's a young, bicultural and bilingual perspective that Hinurewa Poutu wants to bring to a national conversation about New Zealand's constitution.

The 27-year-old Palmerston North woman has links to Ruapehu tribe Ngati Rangi and the Whanganui River. She's now a PhD student and part-time teacher at Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Mana Tamariki, a Maori language immersion school in Palmerston North.

The last time she was the subject of a story in the Chronicle was when she scored a scaled-down 96 per cent for Maori language in a bursary exam.

Since 2011, Ms Poutu has been one of 12 appointees on the Government's Constitutional Advisory Panel. The panel, from a range of cultures and backgrounds, is tasked with finding out whether New Zealanders want any change in the way the country is run, and if they do, what sort of change.

The constitutional review they are embarked on was one of the Maori Party's conditions for its coalition arrangement with the National Party.

The panel is due to report New Zealanders' views back to the Government by the end of the year. Its co-chairmen are Professor John Burrows QC and Sir Tipene O'Regan. Ms Poutu is the youngest member.

New Zealand doesn't have a single written constitution, but a collection of laws, rules and practices. Three of the fundamental documents involved are the 1990 Bill of Rights Act, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi and the 1986 Constitution Act.

Attention to our constitutional arrangements is not top of most people's minds, but Ms Poutu says it's an important issue that affects almost every aspect of life.

"It's a guideline on how to behave, and how to treat other people and the environment. It's about what it means to be a New Zealander. It's basically a reflection of our key values as a country."

One of the first questions is whether New Zealanders want a single written constitution, she says. They may be happy with what they have already.

Any changes would have to be based on fundamental values and aspirations for the lives of future generations.

On a more formal level, the review could change the way the country is governed - the number of MPs in Parliament, whether there should be Maori seats, should parliamentary terms be lengthened to four years. Both National and Labour party leaders are in favour of that.

Strong discussion about the role of the Treaty of Waitangi is likely. Former Act MP Muriel Newman's New Zealand Centre for Political Research has set up a rival group, the Independent Constitutional Review Panel, to oppose giving the treaty any prominent role.

Ms Poutu's panel gets busy from the end of this month, and she and other members are available to speak to groups. They hope people will form their own discussion groups, for which the panel will produce resources.

Individuals and groups can make submissions by June 31, and the panel will write a report for the Government. For more information see www.cap.govt.nz

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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