Speech at launch of A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand

Parliament Buildings Wellington

21 September 2016

Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC


E nga iwi, o te motu, tena katou, tena katou, tena katou katoa

Thank you all for coming.

A long time ago I was a Member of Parliament.

Where we are tonight was the billiard room when I came here as an MP.

I did not know how to play billiards. Margaret Shields MP taught me.

It was hard for me to understand how MPs had time to play billiards given the magnitude of the tasks with which they are entrusted.

But long debates at night can be tedious to listen to.

Before I came to Parliament I had become a constitutional lawyer.

Whether such persons should embark on a political career is an interesting question.

The day I was elected to Parliament my book Unbridled Power? was published by the Oxford University Press. It was a book with a constitutional agenda.

It was launched by that celebrated guardian of the Constitution Sir Guy Powles, the Ombudsman for 14 years.

The book had as its cover a wonderful cartoon by Tom Scott then a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

tom-scott-unbridled-power-coverIt has picture of the Executive wing, the Beehive, in a shape suggestive of a shark’s jaw about to eat up a worried citizen.

Not enough has changed since 1979.

The same cartoon appears in this book and thanks to Tom Scott for the cartoons.

So there exists in my mind a certain continuity of concern about constitutional issues.

It is still all about Government power and the checks and balances against it.

I will give one quotation from the book that contains its most fundamental message:

One of New Zealand’s leading historians, Professor JC Beaglehole, warned as far back as 1944 of the New Zealand constitution being “some silk-wrapped mystery, laid in an Ark of the Covenant round which alone the sleepless priests of the Crown Law Office tread with superstitious awe”.

Fast-forward 70 years and that concern remains valid. Two recent official inquiries—one by a parliamentary select committee chaired by the Hon Peter Dunne in 2005 and the other by a Government-appointed panel on constitutional issues in 2013—agreed that New Zealanders did not understand their own constitution. Inaccessibility is a major contributor to that state of affairs.

Most New Zealanders have no idea what the Constitution is. They cannot find it in any one place or indeed in any accessible place.

So we have written a book that is accessible and brief, setting out a draft written codified Constitution.

I learned a lot about how the Constitution works in twelve years in politics.

I did not think it worked well enough.

Some efforts were made in those days to improve it.

My experience as President of the Law Commission, teaching students and practicing law in this capital city has reinforced my conviction of the need to change.

Constitutional machinery needs constant care and attention or it becomes dilapidated.

This book aims to start a meaningful constitutional conversation. We have set up a website and we will take submissions.

In another year we will publish a final view about what should be done.

We do not seek to secure consideration of it from elected politicians until the process is complete.

This is a conversation about how we are governed.

We want to hear all the diverse voices of New Zealanders.

This is a conversation for everyone not just a few.

This book is an attempt to celebrate and enhance our democratic heritage.

When I was an MP the person who is now a veteran journalist, Barry Soper, accompanied me on a number of overseas trips.

Journalists were better supported by the proprietors in those days.

And there were more of them.

The threat of their extinction poses great threats to our democracy.

At a Pacific Forum Soper and I were at in Tonga, the King of Tonga offered Bob Hawke, the Prime Minister of Australia, to ride around in his big and long Cadillac.

Bob said Geoffrey you take it, I cannot be seen in TV in this in Australia.

I was then the Deputy Prime Minister and there were no TV crews from New Zealand present.

In Tonga I became very interested in the Tongan Constitution drawn up in 1875 with the help of a missionary.

Barry Soper, now a life member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, was impressed by my grasp of the Tongan Constitution.

When I retired from politics he suggested I go and write a new Constitution for Tonga.

But I decided it was more important to do one for New Zealand.

So thanks Barry.

I have other thanks.

My wife Margaret hoped my frenetic activity may come to an end when I left politics.

It did not.

Margaret I owe you everything.

I promise I’m going to find some time to smell the roses or at least grow some more pumpkins, although that will have to be delayed until the second stage of this project is complete.

Our two children and our seven grandchildren are here.

We derive great comfort from them in our older years.

Talking of children, it good to see so many young people here. It is their future to which this book is directed.

I want to thank the Law Foundation and Lynda Hagen who have supported the background research for this project.

And the Foundation has approved a grant for the second stage of the project to assist in the public consultation, for which I am most grateful.

Fergus Barrowman and his staff at the Victoria University Press have done a fine job.

Scarlet Roberts, my research assistant made the mistake of taking two of my courses at the Law School last year. And she talked a lot in class.

I like to think I can spot legal talent when I see it.

What a wonderful research assistant she has been. The voice of youth, which is somewhat distant from me, was brought forcibly and frequently to our attention.

Scarlet will run the Twitter feeds and the Facebook page for the ongoing project.

My daughter Rebekah has provided much of the communications advice. Her partner Bernard Steeds designed the website. They have worked hard. Thank you.

My co-author Andrew Butler was well educated in Ireland, although he has been in New Zealand many years now.

He knows a lot about grammar. He does not like to begin a sentence with “And.”

I do.

It has been a pleasure to work with you Andrew.

You are pleasant and charming fellow and easy to work with.

You are also very smart.

I conclude by saying that Ireland from whence you hail has the type of Constitution we are promoting.

Thank you very much and here is Andrew to address you.