Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Butler-Palmer proposal for a New Zealand constitution

Unlike most nations of the world, New Zealand does not have a written constitution. The process of how its government is appointed is governed by ordinary legislation; specifically, the Constitution Act 1986. However, unlike most constitutions, this legislation is not specially entrenched; nor can courts check the validity of legislation against it, since Parliament is considered the supreme body for national legislation. This system is inherited from the United Kingdom, which has a similar constitutional system.

Some opponents of this system claim that it provides little protection for individual liberties (New Zealand's 'Bill of Rights Act' has no validity in the courts), and that it makes the Constitution difficult for ordinary citizens to understand. It was these reasons in particular that appear to have encouraged former Labour Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and constitutional lawyer Dr. Andrew Butler to write a draft of a potential New Zealand entrenched Constitution. The document is available here.

The Constitution contains some interesting ideas, though it is mostly relatively gradual change from New Zealand's current constitutional system. At the moment, New Zealand has a unicameral parliament, elected by mixed-member proportional representation. A government is chosen by, and responsible to, this Parliament. All of these features would be preserved, and strengthened in the case of the electoral system. Nonetheless, changes are made to some parts of the nation's constitutional structure. The largest one of these is the abolition of the monarchy.

Republic of New Zealand

The first parts of the Constitution lay out the most immediate and substantial change; the replacement of the monarchy, with the Queen of New Zealand (who, coincidentally, is also the Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Jamaica...) represented by the Governor-General with a Republic. Under the current system, the Queen appoints a Governor-General (by convention, the Governor-General is a non-partisan figure appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day) who then appoints a Prime Minister (generally the leader of the party or parties with majority support in the Parliament).

Under the new system, the Parliament would elect, every five years, a 'Head of State'. It is specifically stated that MPs would have a free vote on this matter, though MPs may still follow party lines on this matter in the hope of gaining a more influential position within the party. This Head of State has the formal power to appoint a Prime Minister, though under the new system they can only appoint the candidate elected by Parliament. They appoint Ministers, though this is on the advice of the Prime Minister only. The same condition applies to the Head of State's power to issue writs for parliamentary elections, to appoint ambassadors, and to promulgate legislation.

Regardless of what my readers may think about the virtues of republicanism, one potentially concerning issue exists with the manner in which legislation is promulgated. Laws passed by the House go to the Head of State for signature. In deciding whether to give approval to legislation, the Head of State must act "on advice from the Prime Minister and Attorney-General". This could potentially mean that Parliament's ability to legislate over the head of the Government could be jeopardised, given that the Prime Minister could simply advise the Head of State to veto legislation that Parliament had passed without his support.

This could be more of an issue in New Zealand's political system. Mixed-member proportional representation means that one party has never had an absolute majority in the House, and as such governments are dependent on support from other parties, perhaps with different ideologies. Were these other parties to disagree with the policies of the government, and were they to attempt to vote with the opposition on a bill, the senior government party, with a minority of seats, could simply veto that bill.

Of course, the general response would be that while New Zealand's (and Australia's) Governors-General have had authority to refuse assent to legislation, they have never done so by convention. This is true, but the Australian Constitution and the New Zealand 'Constitution'  do not include the requirement for the Governor-General to act on the advice of the Prime Minister, and thus the convention would be changed.

A better way of putting this would be to either give the power of promulgating legislation to the Speaker of the House  (as in Papua New Guinea), or to allow the Parliament to override the decision of the Head of State by simple majority and either require them to assent to the legislation (as in Morocco) or allow the Speaker of the House to do so (as in the former Kingdom of Laos). The Head of State could also be simply required to sign the legislation. Any one of these solutions would work just as well as the other, but one should be adopted to ensure Parliament is able to act as a law-making body.

Choosing a Government

The present system of choosing a Prime Minister by the Governor-General appointing the person who has the confidence of the House would be replaced under the new Constitution. Under the new system, the Parliament elects a Prime Minister from amongst its members. The Prime Minister must have majority support from the Parliament, which I take to mean that the Prime Minister would be elected by exhaustive ballot (MPs vote for candidates, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is excluded, a further round takes place amongst the remaining candidates. This process repeats until one candidate has a majority. The candidate who has a majority is then appointed by the Head of State as Prime Minister.

This method of appointing a Prime Minister is quite common in the Pacific region. Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, Nauru (though this is for the combined Head of State and Head of Government, titled the President) and Tuvalu all 'elect' their Prime Minister in this way. In theory, the system acts the same as the method used in other Commonwealth countries of appointment by the Sovereign; in both cases, the Prime Minister should have majority support in the parliament. However, it does provide some clarity to the process. Attempts to use the method of appointment by the Sovereign in countries that are more politically fractured, such as Nigeria, resulted in political violence and extended litigation; even in Australia, the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975 represented a case where the powers of the Sovereign were used in a controversial manner.

In this case, then, this represents a very minor change to existing practice in New Zealand. Nonetheless, it would appear to be sensible to take powers away from a Head of State who is meant to "endeavour to act as a non-partisan symbol of unity"; even more so when that leader is chosen for a fixed term by a simple majority of Parliament.  As is normal practice, the Head of State would then appoint a Cabinet, on the advice of the Prime Minister.

Fixed terms of Parliament, for four years, are established. Early elections may be held if three-quarters of Parliament vote for them, or if a majority of MPs vote no confidence in the Government and no new government receives a vote of confidence for fourteen days. This does give the option, for a government wishing an early election, of faking a vote of no confidence in itself and using its majority to block formation of a new government. Nonetheless, this tactic could not be effectively blocked without making it impossible for Parliament to be dissolved in case of a severe deadlock.


The Parliament remains unicameral, and most features are again simply the current practice in New Zealand, but codified. The mixed-member proportional representation system is specified as the means by which Parliament is elected, meaning that it cannot be changed without a Constitutional amendment.

Certain parliamentary offices are specified in the Constitution. The Leader of the House, the Opposition Leader, and the Finance Minister are all in the document, with their roles vaguely outlined. This appears to be an attempt not so much to entrench these offices (which have existed in NZ since the evolution of the modern party despite not being in the Constitution) as to make the Constitution more effective in describing how government operates in the country. A committee system is also entrenched. The committees are given the right to propose legislation, and ministers are prohibited from serving on most of them.

Various other financial offices are entrenched, such as the office of the Auditor-General and the Reserve Bank, which is tasked with "formulating and implementing monetary policy designed to promote stability in the general level of prices" and "promoting the maintenance of a sound and efficient financial system".

Rights and Freedoms

Of course, the main goal of this constitution is to create some rights and freedoms against which legislation can be checked. Oddly enough, this section is towards the ending of the document, a rarity when a Constitution has a bill of rights planned out at drafting (the US's rights and freedoms provisions are towards the end, but they were not put in when the Constitution is written); the only example I can immediately think of is Rhodesia, and those were not strictly rights and freedoms (given that they were qualified to the moon, and were not judicially enforceable anyway).

The rights provided are quite broad, including freedom of expression, the right to privacy, freedom from discrimination on a wide variety of bases, freedom of religion, and rights to a fair trial. These rights, however "may be subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society". This gives some leeway for the government to qualify these rights, though is not uncommon in rights and freedoms provisions around the world. It is also obviously stronger than the current wholly unenforceable Bill of Rights.

Some more rights are provided in the economic area. Free education to the secondary level is guaranteed, and the government is also required to protect the environment (this, as far as I can tell, would be enforceable through the courts). A series of principles for economic policy are laid out, including rights to an "adequate standard of living", social security, and satisfactory health and safety conditions in employment. These principles are explicitly not enforceable through the courts.

The police and intelligence agencies are both specifically mentioned in this section. Both set out that activities of these agencies must be limited by law. Information collected by the security agencies must be approved by a warrant from a 'judicial officer'. Precisely why this provision exists when the right "not to be subject to arbitrary or unlawful interference with that person’s privacy, family, home or correspondence" is unclear; one would assume that, were judicial review to be robust, the courts
would establish guidelines for surveillance.

Other sections

Local government is entrenched in the Constitution, though with no specific powers being granted; rather, a series of principles for its organisation are set out. The office of an Ombudsman is mandated, as is a requirement that official information "must be made available to the greatest extent practicable".

Amendment of the Constitution is done by a vote of three-quarters of Parliament; quite a high threshold by international standards. The US requires a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress (and ratification from three-quarters of the states) and India requires two-thirds of both houses and half the states: closer in the region, Vanuatu requires two-thirds of Parliament, and Papua New Guinea requires two-thirds as well, while Australia requires a majority in both houses and passage at a referendum by a majority of voters both nationwide and in at least four States. Back in NZ, a referendum is then required, with a majority of votes sufficient to pass the referendum (this is how I interpreted the provision; it does not state specifically that both are required, or that only one is).

An extra provision is added for legislation that is invalidated by the courts for incompatibility with the Constitution. This legislation may be 'validated', and hence considered to be in accordance with the Constitution, if a law to that effect is passed by three-quarters of Parliament (but no referendum). For a Constitution where much effort appears to have been put into making it easy to understand, such a provision would seem to hide amendments to the document in hard-to-find pieces of legislation.

One of the most interesting, and as far as I know unique, provisions is the requirement that a Constitutional Commission be held every ten years. This Commission is to be composed of six law officers (the Clerk of Parliament, the Chief Justice, the Ombudsman etc.) and six lucky members of the public. It is tasked with investigating amendments to the Constitution, and reporting to Parliament on the matter.

In general, the Butler-Palmer proposal has substantial merit for protection of human rights, as compared to their current protections, and for making the governing process clear. Nonetheless, in an effort to reach this goal some of the provisions appear too vague, while others seem even redundant. This could lead to difficulties when legislation went before the courts. In order for the document to be effective, clarity and specificity should be placed above educational value. The remainder of the document represents effective codification of current practices, though with some questionable changes involved in the process of transition to a republic.