Civics, Constitutions and Democratic Renewal

Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC
Address to UN Youth High Schools Politics event
University of Auckland, Owen G Glen Building, 12 Grafton Road, Saturday 5 August 2pm

I want to talk to you about how we are governed.

We live in a democracy, one of the world’s oldest democracies.

In a democracy we need to talk about how to govern ourselves.

Not about how others govern us.

So how does democracy work?

Currently, people who are over the age 18 elect MPs who are meant to represent us.

One issue to discuss is should the age be younger, should it be 16?

What do you think?

Many eligible voters are not registered to vote.

Or if they are registered as the law requires them to be, they do not vote.


Don’t they care?

Do they think it does not make a difference?

Do they have so little knowledge of public affairs they have no idea for whom they should vote?

Once upon a time a long time ago I was elected to be an MP in Parliament.

Let me tell you a little about being an MP.

The first problem is how to get elected.

To do that you will need to be endorsed as a candidate by a political party.

Can anyone here think of a person who was elected to Parliament in modern times in New Zealand who was not a member of a political party?

It does not happen.

Many more New Zealanders used to be members of a political party than is the case today.

But the parties control who their candidates will be and you will need to join a political party and work for it if you want to be a candidate.

Different political parties have different philosophies about what policies should be followed.

And you will need to do some work to find out the one with which you feel most comfortable.

Political parties run on the work of volunteers.

You will go to meetings.

You will knock on doors where people live and talk to them.

This is called canvassing.

Politicians have to connect with people.

You have to find out what is on the mind of people and how they are faring.

You will help with fund raising and contribute yourself.

You may go to the annual party conference as a delegate.

There you may get to speak.

If you want to go into politics you have to be a confident public speaker.

After you have done all these things and worked hard you may be lucky enough to be selected as a candidate.

All this can take a lot of time and eat into your leisure.

Getting selected as a candidate is challenging.

Similarly  to secure a place on the partylist.

It is a competitive process.

When I became the Labour Party’s candidate in the seat of Christchurch Central in 1979 there were 18 competitors for the nomination.

We did not find out the result until 2 am in the morning.

Then there is the election campaign.

For the candidate it is a frenzy of door knocking, speaking at meetings, doing interviews with the media, visiting work places, talking to people about their worries and concerns.

Once elected the MP is the people’s representative and must know the people.

Politics is about people, how they live and what their concerns are.

Things change and it is easy to get out of touch.

If the MP or the political party gets out of touch there will be consequences in the next election.

And they happen every three years.

There is no satisfactory explanation as to why people go into politics.

It is a bit like catching a virus and once caught the only cure is to get into Parliament, hard as it may be.

Once you succeed in become an MP your whole life changes.

For one thing you need to be in Wellington for three days a week most of the year.

MPs do a lot of travel.

But MPs have the ancient function of helping constituents with the problems they have and representing those problems to the authorities who can do something about fixing them.

These representations can make a real difference.

Often this is consists of writing letters to Ministers of the Crown.

If you have difficulties with a government decisions go and see your MP first.

It is still good advice.

In my electorate office when I was an MP I usually saw a dozen people each week.

My electorate secretary, who was my wife Margaret until the state supplied one, sorted out many other problems for constituents.

There is no job description for an MP.

It can take all your hours and energy.

But in Wellington you inhabit an unusual subculture called Parliament and that can be a confusing place for beginners.

What is it you are supposed to be doing?

Keep quiet is good advice, most MPs get into trouble from their own utterances.

I do not think those who have not been in public life can appreciate the pressures, strains and tensions that it brings with it.

One of the salient facts is the risk of exhaustion.

The public demands a lot from its elected representatives.

What does the Parliament do?

It is bit of a mystery to many.

Here is a summary.

Benjamin Franklin said in 1789 “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

It remains true.

Parliament will tax you to raise money by which the business of government may be conducted.

Parliament must also decide on what to spend the money.

And then it has to see that it was spent properly.

But the job the MPs spend most time on is passing laws that we must all obey.

Life without law would be nasty, mean, brutish and short.

Sometimes Parliament is called a talking shop that provides a place for the airing of grievances.

It is also a place that serves as a forum for party political contest.

The first function of the Parliament must be to provide the Government and determine its identity.

Parliament must be able to produce stable government.

Parliament is our central democratic institution.

What is the Government?

Broadly, it is the Ministers and the public service.

To be a Cabinet Minister it is necessary first to be an MP.

The Cabinet is responsible and accountable to the Parliament.

Ministers can be questioned there, their actions can be debated there, and they must enjoy the confidence of the House.

There are three great branches of government—

  • The Executive, which comprises the Cabinet and the public service;
  • Then then there is Parliament to which the executive is accountable;
  • And the Judiciary.

The Judges, what of them?

They decide upon disputes and apply the law.

It would not do for the Executive to interpret the law. It would lead to autocracy and dictatorship.

The judges are the custodians of the rule of law, which is the opposite of arbitrary power.

The rule of law plays a vital role in what makes up a free society and a healthy democracy.

What, you may say, is wrong with all of this?

New Zealand cannot afford to be complacent about its democracy.

Kiwis are justifiably proud to live in the first country in the world to adopt universal suffrage so every adult is entitled to vote in parliamentary elections.

But we cannot rest on past deeds. In modern times, New Zealand’s democracy is neither as healthy nor as safe as it could be.

At the last election more than 700,000 enrolled electors didn’t vote. This included more than one-third of those under-35.[1]

This raises a question: if 16 year olds were given the vote, would they exercise it?

A recent survey by Massey University found widespread discontent among voters—even those who support the current Government.[2]

About half of those summed up the country’s mood as ‘discontented’. About half agreed that political leaders are ‘out of touch with the people’.

About half wanted ‘a complete change of Government’ even though Labour supporters were under-represented in the sample.

More than two-thirds thought the system of government was either ‘completely broken’ or ‘working but needs to change’.

These results were mirrored in a recently published Ipsos poll, which found that more than half of those surveyed thought that politicians didn’t care about them.[3]

The Massey research also gave some insights into why voters are discontented and mistrust politicians.

Most were concerned about rising inequality, and in particular about a housing crisis that is locking many young New Zealanders out home ownership. Health and the environment were also big concerns.

The prominence of the environment is unsurprising at a time when New Zealand’s waterways are increasingly polluted and little is being done to combat climate change or prepare for the effects it will have on peoples’ lives.

In earlier times, these levels of discontentment might have been reflected in lower popular support for the Government. But times have changed, and the political system isn’t working as it used to.

What we appear to be seeing – particularly from younger people – is disconnection from and mistrust of all political parties, and from the entire system of government.

Those who feel economically disenfranchised also feel abandoned by politicians and politicians.

We have already seen – in Brexit, and remarkable election results in the United States, France, and Britain – how this discontentment can play out in novel and unexpected ways.

There are four main reasons for voters switching off from politics.

First, there is a lack of information. Many voters have little understanding of how New Zealand’s system of law-making government works, and therefore little understanding of how their input might bring about change.

This is not surprising: there is no single document a New Zealander can read to find out how New Zealand’s system of government works.

Civics education is limited, and public education in this area almost non-existent.

Second, New Zealanders have largely turned away from political parties. Parties used to have large numbers of members, who had opportunities to debate and discuss the party’s policies. This created a very direct link between voters and Parliament.

Now, only a tiny fraction of New Zealanders belong to political parties. Citizen participation has reduced markedly, making the political system less connected to the people.

New Zealand now has many parties but they have many fewer members than they did in 1954. Small numbers of people in the professional political elites exert the power. This is not the type of representative democracy we once had.

Third, there has been a long and sustained decline in the media’s treatment of Parliament, policy and politics. Newspapers used to carry detailed accounts of parliamentary debates and political issues, and broadcast media used to focus on lengthy current affairs interviews.

The newspaper business model is collapsing from the challenges of the multi-media, digital age and the evolution is not yet complete.

As competition has increased, news media have become more entertainment- and celebrity-focused, and media staffing and resources have become more stretched.

It’s true that a vast amount of information is available online. But people do not know what to make of it and cannot devote the time and effort to find out what it all means.

A fourth reason for public disenchantment is the rising influence of money and professional lobby groups.

In the absence of mass membership, political parties now rely for funding on donations from trade unions, corporations, and wealthy individuals.

In such a situation there are risks that the voice of ordinary people will be drowned out by the interests of those with money.

New Zealand has some safeguards in place to limit third party spending on election campaigns and to promote transparency about political donations.

But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that election outcomes depend at least partly on which party has the most money.

There is a case for tightening political donation and election spending regulations, and for increasing regulatory oversight of political parties.

All this adds up to one conclusion.

New Zealand needs democratic renewal. This means encouraging civic literacy, so people understand how government works, and how they can have influence.

And it means building trust in the institutions of government, by reconnecting the governors with the governed.

Democracy means more than having a vote every three years. It means having genuine opportunities for informed participation in the business of government, so that laws and policies reflect the wishes of the people.

Internationally, some democratic countries are finding new ways for government to engage with citizens, and involve them in decision-making.

In Ireland and Iceland, for example, randomly selected panels of citizens have been involved in drawing up constitutional reforms.

These are efforts at ‘deliberative democracy’ – a democracy that informs its citizens and involves them in decision-making, instead of reserving all power for an elected elite.

One of the principal aims of the codified constitution that Dr Andrew Butler and I have proposed (which we call A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand is to strengthen understanding of New Zealand’s system of government, by gathering all of the main laws in one document which people can easily find.

We have a website – – and we want to hear from you.[4]

Please make a submission.

Do you agree that New Zealand’s democracy could be made stronger? If so, how? What should change?


[1]    Electoral Commission General Election; Voter Turnout Statistics 2014, available at <>.

[2]    Massey University “Election Survey shows widespread discontent” 2017, available at <>.

[3]    Henry Cooke “Over half Kiwis thing the economy and politics are rigged against them” (online ed, 3 July 2017) available at <>.

[4]    <>.