New Zealand is not a democracy, if by that we mean government for the people, by the people. This was proven to me beyond a doubt when I was sworn in as an MP for the third time in 2005. MPs are required to swear allegiance to the Queen and her successors before they can take part in the Parliament. When I tried to add “to the people of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Treaty of Waitangi” (Parliament's true sources of legitimacy) I was forbidden to do so. MPs allegiance must be to the British Crown alone.
I was neither the first nor the last MP to attempt to add something meaningful to the oath, but it was a personal reminder about who the Parliament serves. Allowing New Zealanders to elect the people who serve the Crown in this country fools us into thinking that those representatives are there to serve us. More importantly, it obscures the lie that is at the heart of our constitution – that the source of political authority is the Queen.
The Parliament only sits after it receives Letters Patent from the Queen giving it the power to do so. Every Act passed through Parliament has to be signed off by the Queen, or her proxy the Governor General, before it becomes law. Regulations are actually Orders in Council from the Queen or the Governor General, made on the advice of her Minsters. Within our system, the Queen is the very source of political power and legitimacy.
This is not just abstract political theory. It distorts our very thinking about what the Government can and can't do. It is the reason why New Zealanders have so few real protections from the State, protections that would limit the power of the Crown. It is the basis for the Governments ability to sack an elected council in Canterbury and replace it with hand chosen appointees, or forcibly take over the administration of the waterfront from Auckland City. It is what allows the Government to seriously contemplate passing a law under urgency to legalise police surveillance that the courts have already ruled was illegal and that the police were repeatedly warned about. It was what allowed the last Labour Government to steal huge areas of land based on the ethnicity of its owners with the Foreshore and Seabed Act. The power of the Crown trumps the rule of law.
If we were a real democracy, our political system – our constitution – would be based on the recognition that sovereignty flows from the people, not from a monarch (and a foreigner at that). It would embody the idea that political power flows upwards. Sovereignty begins with our right as human beings to make decisions over our own lives. We express it in the collective decisions we make as communities. Elements of it can be passed on to the national parliament and to the regional and global governance bodies that we collectively choose to take part in.
A New Zealand democracy would be based on the Treaty of Waitangi, which reinforces the local decision-making rights of hapu over the things that affect them. In the Maori language version of the treaty that the chiefs and Governor Hobson signed, Maori never ceded sovereignty to the Crown. The idea that the Queen is the sovereign power is simply incompatible with the tino rangatiratanga of hapu. That is why the courts have had to invent the “principles of the Treaty of Waitangi” in an attempt to sidestep the international legal doctrines that give priority to the Maori language version.
A real New Zealand democracy would provide protection for all its people from the arbitrary use of power by the State. It would safeguard our human and civil rights from those given enforcement power over us, such as the police, prison system, customs, and increasingly food and medicines regulators. At present New Zealanders have no constitutional protection at all. It is only the lack of a simple majority due to MMP that has slowed the Government from ramming through an emergency retrospective law to give police carte blanche powers of video surveillance.
Finally a real democracy would not have local councils made and unmade by the whim of the Crown, but as expressions of people's inherent right to make decisions at a local level over the things that affect them at a local level. The ability to sack a properly elected council and replace it with Government appointees is an outrage, made possible only by a distorted view of political legitimacy and power.
New Zealand will become a republic sooner or later. The real question we need to ask ourselves, though, is much deeper. Does the power of our Parliament come from some person because they are more divine than the rest of us, more imbued with wisdom and justice? Or rather does it come from the people and their inalienable right to rule their own lives, and their choice to bestow on the Government the ability to make decisions in the best interests of the nation? Once we have decided that, eveything else will become clear.