Constitution essential if New Zealand is to avoid Trump-style fallout, former PM says
The risk of a Donald Trump-like ruler wreaking havoc in New Zealand is too great without a written constitution, according to former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer.
He argues a constitution is essential in the "post-truth scenario we're living in".
It has to do with the rights, protections, checks and balances a constitution could provide, Palmer told an audience of more than 200 senior citizens at Hamilton's Hillcrest Baptist Church this week.
The principles that govern New Zealand are scattered among many documents, including the Bill of Rights, the Treaty of Waitangi, various pieces of legislation and court decisions.
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"People could take over in Trump-like fashion and do crazy things – we couldn't stop them," he said.
Palmer, a constitutional lawyer, has drafted A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand with colleague Dr Andrew Butler. They are seeking submissions and promoting the book to audiences around the country.
Alongside the United Kingdom and Israel, New Zealand is one of three countries in the world without a constitution, Palmer said.
"If you can't find out and read the constitution, how are you going to know what your rights are?"
Currently, political decisions can alter the rules.
For example, in 2012, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Government must pay family members who care for disabled adults.
In a "shocking" piece of legislation passed without public consultation in a single day the next year, MPs decided family carers could no longer make complaints to the Human Rights Commission, or file court proceedings against the government.
The law also said family carers could not seek retrospective payment for their work.
It showed total disregard for the rights of this vulnerable group, Palmer says.
"If you don't write the rules down, they disappear in front of your eyes."
Palmer counts 37 such cases since the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act passed in 1990.
"That is how fragile our constitutional system currently is," the authors wrote.
Their vision for a single, 40-page document cements the current constitutional framework, but also embeds privacy, property, environment and education rights.
It would empower the courts to enforce citizens' rights, but differ from the United States as it'd still give politicians the final say.
The proposed constitution could change if 75 per cent of MPs vote to do so.
The current majority required to pass law, constitution changing or otherwise, is more than 50 per cent of votes. Governments often have the majority without opposition support.
There would be a review of the proposed constitution every 10 years to make sure it was still suitable.
Asked by an audience member why the Treaty of Waitangi ought to be included, Palmer said it was the founding document from which everything else flows.
"The treaty always speaks," he said.
Having a constitution doesn't mean New Zealand will depose the Queen, but becoming a republic will require a constitution.
"Once you get rid of the Queen her powers have to be put somewhere, so who is going to exercise them and how?"
Palmer said they were seeking input from audiences around the country and intend to respond directly to every submission.
Involving young people in the conversation was a challenge.
"Young people are not as engaged with these issues as older people are."
Margaret Jackson, 79, said young people, such as her phone-obsessed grandchildren, weren't interested in civic matters.
She worried what will happen if the Queen dies and there is no constitution in place.
"It will all fall to bits."
Jill Cameron, 70, was surprised to learn New Zealand did not have a constitution already.
"It would make me feel more secure, knowing future generations had something to depend on."
Godfrey Bridger, a marketing consultant, said there was no question a constitution was required.
"Look what's happening around the world with Trump … we need to start putting in insurance."
Public submissions on the current proposed constitution are open until September 30.