Why a constitution alone is not enough

New Zealand’s political culture needs to change, starting with civics education that shows young New Zealanders the difference they can make, writes Peter McKenzie.

Dr Andrew Butler and Sir Geoffrey Palmer note that New Zealand is only one of three nations in the world that lacks a formal, written constitution. This status has not caused major issues so far. However they point out that our legal system has had to rely on constitutional convention and habit to prevent potential crises or curtailing of rights – an undesirable and unsustainable situation. Similarly, when crises have hit, we have had to muddle our way through without guidance.

With this in mind, Dr Butler and Sir Geoffrey’s campaign for a codified and supreme constitution focuses on empowering the individual. As they have straightforwardly said in a recent blog post on this website – “People have rights and they should be protected.” Such a campaign is admirable in that it places citizens and communities at the heart of governance.

Dr Butler and Sir Geoffrey aim to protect the individual through guaranteeing their fundamental rights via judicial review. More crucially however, through constitutional codification they provide an easily accessible constitutional document which clearly lays out our fundamental rights and responsibilities, as well as the formal operations of government.

Further, their proposed constitution would mandate the continual creation of a wide range of information regarding the constitutional and political issues and processes relevant to New Zealanders.

One example this is Section 114, which constitutionally demands transparency. As a result, it strongly encourages the reform of official information law. The Office of the Ombudsman in 2015 recognised the insufficiencies of current transparency practices. The Law Commission has twice, in 1997 and 2012, provided recommendations on how to improve the Official Information Act 1982. Reforming the Act would help ensure New Zealand’s media organs can support civic awareness. It is fantastic that this Constitution would help encourage such reform.

In these ways, greater constitutional clarity and a larger stream of information around the operations of government gives more educational resources to Kiwis. This helps us understand how to engage in the system, and what specific subjects to engage with.

But to say that stronger legal protections, greater constitutional clarity and more information on their own are sufficient to foster individual empowerment would be false. Such efforts are only part of the conversation our society must have. This conversation ought to revolve around how we can better engage individuals and communities in our political system. By doing this, we ensure that our civic discourse is as inclusive and informed as possible, and serves the interests of all Kiwis.

For while it is true that it would be good if the courts could guard the individual rights of New Zealanders, there is an even more powerful guardian that we can involve: New Zealanders themselves. Meaningful accountability does not simply mean more efficient legal and constitutional processes, nor just having more information available about government activities. Meaningful accountability requires the development of a civic culture where Kiwis actually make use of those processes, and use that information.

We must give Kiwis the confidence and capacity to approach their Members of Parliament or local Councillors, to make submissions to Parliament or their local Council, or to take action outside of the formal political system. That way, they can articulate any concerns or any injustices they may experience in a way that could lead to public outcry and legislative action. They can pinpoint issues that are not being responded to in their local communities, and ensure that the system addresses them. Informed individual action is a potent force for the protection of individual rights.

On this topic, it is interesting that three of the articles on the Constitution Aotearoa website concern whether a four-year parliamentary term is better for major law reform. Whilst such discussions are important, it is clear that the best way to ensure ongoing reform and continual improvement is not eliminating formal constraints like short parliamentary terms. It is to make sure that those with legitimate grievances are no longer marginalised by our political system.

All this leads to the question: How do we create a civic culture which empowers individuals so that they can independently advocate for themselves and their communities?

One way we can support the development of such a culture is to support non-governmental organisations such as the MacGuiness Institute, RockEnrol, and Active Citizenship Aotearoa. All of these groups are focusing on youth. They are encouraging formal civic activities such as voting, and facilitating informal community action. Active Citizenship Aotearoa specifically is about to hold its ‘Shaping Aotearoa’ summit in Porirua on July 3rd. This summit will bring together youth from around the Greater Wellington region to work with legal and political experts. In doing so, they can foster an understanding of the New Zealand political system and how young people can engage with it. That Sir Geoffrey will be one of the experts at the event is an indication of how seriously Sir Geoffrey and Dr Butler seem to be taking the development of a positive civic culture.

Another way we can support the development of such a culture is to implement comprehensive civic education in our schools. At the moment, most students are only taught about our political system during Year 9 and 10, after which it becomes voluntary in the form of ‘Social Studies’. Students will spend the rest of their lives living within this system, and yet most are taught only the bare surface details of it. It seems only logical that we should expand this subject out to cover Years 11 to 13 as well, so that students can develop a comprehensive understanding of their place within our democracy.

The way we teach civics must change as well. It is no longer good enough to simply sit our students down and lecture them about dusty figures from history, or old statutory relics. Instead we must embrace the new wave of experiential teaching, which encourages students to actively get involved. A notable New Zealand academic recently recounted to me one specific example of particularly effective civics education. As part of a unit showing students how they can make community change, the students chose to spend the start of each week collating information about the weekly supermarket discounts. They would then publish it in their school newsletter. This eased the financial burden of grocery shopping for parents. This clearly demonstrated to students that they have the power to change their communities for the better. When they understood that, students were eager to scale up their work, and try find other ways of engaging in our political system to make change.

In this way, more effective and more comprehensive civic education is a common-sense proposal that deserves rapid implementation.

In summary, Dr Butler and Sir Geoffrey proposed constitution deserves huge credit. It is a major step on the way to ensuring that individuals and communities have strong legal protections against every political eventuality, that there is clarity to New Zealand’s constitutional structure, and that there is a constant flow of information keeping the government accountable.

However in order to truly create a political system that protects and serves every New Zealander, we must focus as well on creating a positive civic culture that is ingrained in us all. We ought to explore the diverse multitude of ways of doing this, but the most obvious method of achieving this goal is through experiential, comprehensive and compulsory civics education.

Peter McKenzie is in his first year studying Law, Politics and Chinese at Victoria University. He is part of Active Citizenship Aotearoa, a group focused on engaging young people in our political system and civic discourse.