Protecting local democracy from government whims

A written constitution would protect local democracy from central government interference, says Dr Jean Drage.

I believe it is essential that New Zealand has a written constitution and that a system of local government is protected within this written constitution.

Over the years, local government in New Zealand has been changed at the whim of central government, often over a minor or local issue rather than as a result of well-documented or researched, reasoned and considered debate.

Today, we see central government stepping into local government business more than ever and, in some cases, overriding local decision-making (as we have seen in Christchurch with Environment Canterbury and with the ongoing earthquake recovery process).

Protecting local government within a written constitution will ensure that this level of government can only be changed by a majority within parliament. This will ensure that political party, local government and local community debate will have to be heard and considered as part of any major reforms or changes to local government.

To ensure local government is strengthened, it needs to be more prominent in the proposed Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand. The constitution should explain that New Zealand has two levels of government, central and local. Local government should appear before Part 12 (The Bill of Rights), because the rights and freedoms relate to both levels of government and citizens.

The principles for local government in section 73 are good, but could be strengthened. In particular, these principles should include a Memorandum of Understanding negotiated between local and central government on services to be provided and a revenue sharing programme in order to finance local services. Possibly a time period should be attached to this (every three years).

I also support a written constitution for other reasons. Indeed, the benefits are all too obvious in this very unsettled political time. One only has to look at the protections in the USA constitution that are currently stopping the new President from creating (more) chaos.

We have documented evidence of how the current National-led government in New Zealand has used tools such as urgency in parliament to negate the need for democratic process. While New Zealand may do well on measurements such as those used by NGOs such as Transparency International, the reality is that when compared to other liberal democracies, we have a highly centralised political system with very limited devolution of public services.

A written constitution would provide New Zealand with a distinctive national identity but it would also need to be accompanied by a move to a Republic. We saw with the flag debate that much of the opposition to the proposed change was based on it being separated out as a single issue rather than part of a wholesale shift to change. Becoming a republic would definitely mean we had grown up. A Head of State should be selected across Parliament as the Governor General used to be.

If a referendum is held it would need to be based on a single majority of more than 50 per cent.

A written constitution should include a requirement for civics to be part of the basic education starting in primary school in New Zealand.

Dr Jean Drage is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in the Department of Environmental Management at Lincoln University. Her most recent publications include A Balancing Act: Representation and Decision-Making in New Zealand’s Local Government (2008) and two co-edited books Local Government in New Zealand: Challenges and Choices (2016) and Along a Fault-Line: New Zealand’s Changing Local Government Landscape (2011).

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