Why New Zealand needs a written constitution

It’s time for New Zealand to have a constitution that is accessible and clear, say Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Dr Andrew Butler.

A constitution provides the system of fundamental principles under which a nation is governed.  It sets out the government’s powers and limits and how government institutions work.

Our book Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand makes the case for a new constitution that is easy to understand, reflects New Zealand’s identity and nationhood, protects rights and liberties, and prevents governments from abusing power.

New Zealand’s current constitution is formed by a jumble of statutes and is unclear and inaccessible to most citizens.  It can be overridden easily by Parliament and is subject to political whims.  Important features, such as the Bill of Rights, can be changed or removed by Parliament with no consultation and no popular mandate.

We propose that a written, codified constitution for New Zealand be put in place so that the fundamental rules and principles under which we are governed are clearly set out in a single, accessible document.

The current constitution is inaccessible

The current New Zealand constitution is hard to find and hard to describe.  It consists of a mix of New Zealand and old English statutes, obscure conventions, court decisions, and much academic and professional commentary on constitutional practice – some of these rules are legally binding, and others not.  The constitution is the foundation of law and politics in any country.  It should be easy to find, so that people know the basic rules by which they are governed and public power is regulated.

Constitution should be more accessible: consensus noted by 2013 Constitutional Advisory Panel

Interestingly, the 2013 Constitutional Advisory Panel noted a widespread consensus that “our constitution should be more easily accessible and understood”.  It suggested that “accomplishing this might be to assemble our constitutional protections into a single statute”.

In addition, the make up of New Zealand society has been evolving.  To many of us who live here now, the style of government that we operate under is not intuitive; many of us have not grown up under the Westminster system of government, nor under a system where Parliament can pretty much pass any law that it likes, as quickly as it likes, with as little consultation as it likes, so long as 51% of MPs agree.  Greater diversity in our society requires more knowledge of, and easy access to, the rules concerning how power is exercised.

We need one document to which people can go and examine the rules for government and the rights that people enjoy.

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