When you ask New Zealanders to think ‘constitution' most would think USA or the “We the people” start of the US constitution.
While New Zealand doesn't have such a reputation surrounding a single document, that is not to say we have no constitution, the elements of our constitutional arrangements are contained in several Acts of Parliament such as the Legislature Act 1908, the Constitution Act 1986, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and the Electoral Act 1993. These laws include provisions on how we vote, the term of Parliament, the powers of Parliament, the formation of the Government, and individual rights. (Parliament.nz, 2010)
They serve to establish the major institutions of government, giving political power to the House of Representatives, and constraining the power of the sovereign over New Zealand.
The power and responsibility of New Zealand's Constitutional arrangements are great, and just a great as we grow and evolve as a country is the need to keep that power and responsibility heading it the right direction, this is where constitutional reform comes in.
To give a clearer understanding of where reform could take us, I will first outline the current distinct features of our constitution, review arguments for and against MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) reform as a possible improvement of the legislative branch, then conversely, show how bringing back the death penalty is a move in the wrong direction for the judiciary sector.
Though there are a spider web of features that comprise the New Zealand constitution, the distinct parts are contained under four main headings, the sovereign, the Executive, Judiciary and the legislative.
Firstly, the constitution describes New Zealand as a monarchy system of government in which the Queen of England is sovereign and the governor general is her representative here. As I said earlier the powers that come with that right have been denounced in the Constitution Act 1986, so today the situation is more symbolic than anything, “the queen reigns, but the government rules” (Kenneth Keith, 2008)
The executive branch also features the Cabinet which functions as the policy making body, the cabinet includes the Prime minister and all the ministers of the crown. Features of this branch include the fact only MPs can be Ministers to the Crown, and must abide by the principle of collective responsibility. (Cabinet Manual, 2008)
Also known as the doctrine of collective responsibility, translated, means members of the cabinet have a responsibility to keep the confidence of his/her party members, they risk loosing their powers if they do otherwise, an example of this is David Lange's resignation in 1989. (Bassett, 2004)
The Judiciary branch is the law making branch, which consist of all the courts, and applies the law in the name of the Crown.
The constitution act states the Judiciary's court hierarchy as follows; the Supreme Court (the highest body), Court of Appeal, High Court, District, Environmental, and the Maori Land court (Crichton, 2010) This is an important area to the Constitution, because you can't have a state with rights and rules for the citizens without the facilities put in place to monitor and enforce these rights and regulations.
Lastly, the legislative branch, the details of which include…..
this is where referendums are debated, whether they be government led or citizen initiated.
The current MMP electoral system isn't as fair as it should be a change to a STV (Single Transferable Vote) voting system would be a better option in my opinion.
There is a discrepancy currently showing up in parliament through the seats that are being allocated to minority parties. For example in the 2008 election the New Zealand first party received 4.07% of the vote, and got 0 seats, compared to ACT New Zealand getting 5 seats with only 3.65% of the vote(electionresults.govt.nz). MMP clearly promotes lopsided and unfair results because of this local electorate seat cancelling out the quota, a problem which would be solved with an STV voting system.
STV is a transferable voting system in which you rate the candidates in your district rather than having a party vote. Further more if a candidate is elected, they keep only the proportion of the vote they need to reach the quota. The surplus part of each vote is transferred to the voters' second choice (STV.govt.nz 2004) reducing wasted votes. If this was in practice in 2008, the people whose top ranked votes went to NZ First when they didn't reach the quota would have gone tho their second choice, which could help another party clinch a clearer win. In 2007, eight councils around the country were already implementing the system to elect their members (www.stv.govt.nz)
Arguments in favour of STV emphasise its fairness and its potential to effectively represent the preferences of voters overall. (Barrett, 2006)
On the other hand there are those who support our current MMP system, there is even a Nationwide Pro-MMP Group stoutly declaring thier view.
The Campaign for MMP is planning to have branches throughout the country and to work with allied groups including Artists and Musicians for MMP and Women for MMP to represent the wide range of New Zealanders who care about having a fair electoral system. (campaignformmp). But if you r talking about fairness
Even then though they only doubt the FPP (First Past the Post) and SM (Single Member) election types saying Any extra votes for a candidate who has already won are wasted, and they may as well not vote (campaignformmp). Admittedly I found I difficult to find a significant objection towards the preferred STV system their website doubting
Supporters of STV accept its complexity, but argue that you do not need to know the detail of how votes are counted and preferences allocated to gain the benefits from it - a bit like not needing to know how the microprocessors in our computers work to get the benefit of using them. (Patrick Barrett 2006)
What would New Zealand gain by the return of capital punishment? Possible answers to that question may be; to have a strong deterrent for would be criminals, or even, a guarantee that the worst offenders are never released. The consistent idea those propositions offer, is how unwelcome criminals are in our society.
You may have noticed in my opening sentence I wrote “the return of capital punishment”
Capital punishment has been in New Zealand since 1840 and for a total of 102 years, though there was a 15 year gap from 1935-1950 where Labour commuted all death sentences to life in prison (NZhistory.net.nz 2009) its those 7 years after 1950-1957 where it was restored that confirm there was and probably still is support for the death penalty. Wether it be the ever bearing cost to the tax payer in containing prisoners, the desire to feel safety and security, or just general apathy towards the criminals, it is evident today there is still a fan club for the capital punishment system.
(Even if it may only be the Close-Up viewers.)
Poll Question: Do you support the reintroduction of the death penalty in New Zealand?
Total number of votes: 9685
No: 2622 (TVNZ 2008)
There is a conflict of principle when I compare capital punishment with New Zealand.
Freedom of speech, and Innocent until proven guilty, V.S. death by legal government hanging, I imagine the concept of legal killings would shake up the majority of moralistic New Zealanders, including me. Even so, a referendum on the matter is still a grim possibility, then again so is a boycott of any government that supports the penalty.
One obvious failing of the death penalty is when you get it wrong, it is quite possible that the last execution in 1957 happens to be an example of this. Walter Bolton was convicted for killing his wife Beatrice Bolton by arsenic poisoning (nzhistory.net.nz 2007). The interesting thing is traces of arsenic were found in Bolter himself and one of his daughters, as the sheep dip had leaked into the waterways. Whether or not he was innocent, the point is, you can't turn back on that kind of decision. Furthermore juries are often more reluctant to convict with such a final and irreversible punishment. This can have the undesirable side effect of increasing the chances of killers going free. (laworderreferendum.org.nz) I would rather offenders be locked away for life, than kill some and release the rest.
The constitutions reach over New Zealand is enormous, its silent governance is in play whether you know of its existence or not, it is an will continue to be open to reform. Ultimately, the details of the constitution are to serve us and help us grow as a democratic state. Rights like freedom of speech and the protection against arbitrary detention and the right to a Citizens initiated referenda are good examples of the roles the constitution plays and relationship it has with the branches of our government.
Kenneth, K. 2008, Cabinet Manual, P.3 Retrieved 19/03/2010 from, www.cabinetmanual.cabinetoffice.govt.nz
Barrett, P. (2006) FPP or STV? Retrieved 20/03/2010, from www.waikato.ac.nz/news/archive.shtml?article=532
How Parliament works 2010, Accessed 19/03/2010 from, www.parliament.nz/en-NZ/AboutParl/HowPWorks/FactSheets/0/e/7.htm
Dr Michael Bassett www.michaelbassett.co.nz/article_lange.htm
The New Zealand Legal System By Fiona Crichton, LLB (http://www.adls.org.nz/information-for-public/legal-system)
Capital punishment in New Zealand', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/the-death-penalty, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage
Fri Dec 2: Executioner; Drab to Fab; Caravan
'The last execution - capital punishment', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/the-death-penalty/the-last-execution, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage
The case for Longer Sentences ( for violent offenders) www.laworderreferendum.org.nz/Sentencing.htm