Showing posts with label republic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label republic. Show all posts

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Emergency surveillance law shows the Crown has too much power

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.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Is Keith's republican bill avoiding the real issue?

I would love us to become a republic. Watching some historical films about the English monarchy and the parasites that surround them has re-inspired a powerful republican sentiment in me. It is not that I dislike the Windsors, but they are the result of more than a thousand years of inbreeding and (sometimes fatally) hostile family dynamics. Who on earth would want them as our Heads of State?

If Green MP Keith Locke gets his way, we will all get a chance to vote on it. His private members bill – the Head of State Referendum Bill – is set to be debated in Parliament and, if it passes, would force a public referendum to decide between three options for our Head of State: keeping the Queen; someone elected by the people; or someone selected by 75% of Parliament. If no option gets more than 50% of the vote, a second (run-off) referendum will be held featuring only the two most popular options.

I don't want the bill to pass. I do very much want it to pass a first reading and go to select committee. The people of New Zealand deserve an opportunity to have a say on whether we want royals or not, and the select committee public process would be a good start. In addition, it will spark a national debate in a constitutionally illiterate nation. That status is not surprising since most school don't teach civics education or even much New Zealand history, but it is shameful.

For all that, New Zealand will not, and should not, make such an important constitutional change by way of a private members bill. Keith is well intentioned but his bill is deeply flawed. It is a hasty fix – like slapping a plaster on an acid burn. What we need is slower and more considered debate, because the issue goes well beyond whose face is on the coins. The Queen (acting through the Governor General) can dissolve Parliament or refuse to assent to legislation for example, but she does not act because to do so would put her position in jeopardy. An elected President may feel that they have a democratic mandate to use those powers, causing a huge shift in our careful constitutional balancing act.

More importantly it is the constitutional thinking that underpins the monarchy that needs challenging – the peculiar British notion of the indivisibility of sovereignty. Many nations recognise that different functions of sovereignty can be exercised in different places – hence the sovereign status of various Indian nations as Indigenous people, and of individual States in the USA, or the very localised decision-making in Swiss Cantons. This is also what the Treaty of Waitangi promises in article 2 – the tino rangatiratanga (autonomy) of hapu. Keith's bill says that Treaty obligations would remain unchanged, but this ignores the bigger possibility to develop a constitution that truly reflects the partnership foreseen in the Treaty and our place in the Pacific Triangle. The highly centralised notions of power that dominate New Zealand political thinking are great for the rich and powerful but act against the interests of both Maori and Pakeha communities striving to maintain social and ecological stability in the face of the corporate steamroller. Just ask the people trying to stop iron sand mining or electricity transmission lines.

David Nielsen, in the 'Radical Rethink' lecture series run by Continuing Education at Waikato University spoke about possible responses to our environmental and social problems, and referred to the need for a 'cosmopolitan democracy' that recognises and empowers different levels of governance at a global, regional, national and local level, but whose fundamental principle was based on supporting and encouraging local autonomy. That is where we need to take the republican debate, in my view. Swapping the Queen for some other toff means nothing to me.

(from my Waikato Times column 16 October 2009)

NB I am speaking at the 'Radical Rethink' lecture series on 27th October at 6.30pm, AG.30, Gate 8