Week in politics: Work yet to be done setting up constitutional review

One of the big items yet to be ticked off on the Government's must-do coalition agenda is setting up the promised constitutional review.

It is very late, having been promised to the Maori Party, in the confidence and supply agreement, for no later than early 2010.

The Government can get away with such a breach of deadline, because so few people care about it.

It is neither uppermost on voters' minds nor lowermost. It is not on their minds at all.

The review is keenly anticipated mainly in the beltway, and by intellectuals within Maoridom. The delay is not a bad thing.

It means more thought has been given to the process and it is less likely to be a once-over-lightly affair.

There is no reason to rush it.

As Prime Minister John Key said this week, a "long conversation" is planned. That will suit both sides.

National is not itching to have a conversation about the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in a possible written constitution of New Zealand, and definitely not in election year.

So remote has its interest in the subject been, National actually refused to take part in the last review, a parliamentary review conducted by United Future leader Peter Dunne.

Both National and the Maori Party want people on the groups who are not seen to have their own agendas; people who would not allow the process to be hijacked into a Maori sovereignty debate.

Sir Harawira Gardiner's name has been mentioned.

He is a former army officer with a safe pair of hands.

Former law professor and now deputy solicitor-general Matthew Palmer would be ideal too, being the pre-eminent expert in the field, but with an open mind.

Whoever leads it will have to take care that the Treaty of Waitangi relationship between the Crown and iwi is not so all-consuming that it marginalises Pakeha from the process.

Mr Key this week said announcements on his review might be made soon, maybe even next week.


With good reason, Labour's Phil Goff and United Future's Peter Dunne wondered why they had not been consulted already.

National has had a good record on cross-party consultation this term on electoral law reform, and Dunne has a special interest having led the last review, albeit one that ended up in a cul de sac.

Mr Dunne initiated that review and began with high hopes.

But with no political will on Labour's part, his parliamentary committee was hobbled by weak terms of reference, and it ended with a whimper about a month before the 2005 election.

By contrast, this review could start with a relative whimper and build up to something potentially quite significant.

Mr Key is not expecting an initial report back before 2012 or 2013, at the earliest.

How significant it becomes will be determined by the political will of the next government, not this one.

But the terms of reference in the first instance are likely to include the Maori seats, the Maori option which is held every five years - the process by which the number of seats is determined - the length of the parliamentary term, and whether there should be a written constitution.

There could well be a referendum at the 2014 election on such matters.

If the answer is yes, there should be a written constitution, then the real conversation starts.

The role of the treaty would be central, but only one part.

The role of the Bill of Rights Act in a constitution would be another, the role of international convenants, not to mention the biggie: courts versus Parliament, and whether the courts should be given the right to strike down legislation as they can in the United States and Australia.

It is all about power, who gets it and how it is exercised.

Complicating the planning for the constitutional review is the 2011 referendum on MMP.

If it is to opt for a change from MMP, it is hard to see how the constitutional review could remain separate from what would be a 2014 electoral referendum.

It is no wonder designing the process is taking time.

Republicanism will be off the agenda for now.

While New Zealand effectively operates as a republic, Mr Key has made it clear he has no interest in formalising it in the lifetime of Queen Elizabeth II, the head of state.

Where the next constitutional review will differ greatly from Mr Dunne's, is that it will not be politically driven.

It will have oversight of a couple of ministers - Pita Sharples and Simon Power - but it will be run by a group of experts, who will spend most their first year, 2011, planning a review and public consultation process.

The reasoning is that with there being a general election, an MMP referendum and a Rugby World Cup, the public appetite for a full-on constitutional review to take off in 2011 would be limited.

A year's breathing space could, however, be used by Maori to try to identify the key issues for when it gets fully under way.

Just what role the influential iwi leadership group will play in the process has not yet been decided.

Whether they will run a parallel process or have a major input into a process run by the expert group has yet to be decided.

Their position will be discussed today at a hui being held at Takapuahia marae in Porirua - it's a regular hui, not a special one on the constitutional review.

The experience so far of attempting to repeal the foreshore and seabed by National and the Maori Party shows why care is needed.

The potential to lose control of an issue, for others to raise expectations to an unrealistic level, is high.

Political mismanagement, aiming too high, can turn political gains into losses and damage race relations in the process.

How Maori use the next year in identifying the issues, and how they will run them, will be a defining factor in how long the conversation lasts.

It could turn out to be a very long conversation.

Audrey Young is The New Zealand Herald political editor.


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