A constitutional examination

The HoS reports:

Top constitutional lawyer Alison Quentin-Baxter and Dundee University law professor Janet McLean will spend three years examining strengths, uncertainties and inadequacies in the country’s constitutional arrangements that will be published as a book.

The Cabinet Office is recruiting a legal researcher who will be based in the office and have access to its files.

This is an excellent thing to do. Events of recent years such as the shattering of the bipartisan convention to major changes to the Electoral Act have shown how uncertain our unwritten constitutional conventions are.

Even minor conventions such as Cabinet collective responsibility have been watered down that they no longer really exist. In fact some say they never did – it was always just a pragmatic practice, not a convention – so where is the line?

For me the most outraegous behaviour, in constitutional terms, was when a narrow majority in Parliament retrospectively amended the Electoral Act to keep Harry Duynhoven in Parliament despite the fact he was no longer eligible to remain an MP, and should have had to contest a by-election to be re-elected. When MPs can amend the Electoral Act by narrow majority to stop an election, we don’t have a lot of protection – just the Governor-General and they can be effectively sacked by the Prime Minister at whim.

Hence one reason I support having a Head of State who can not be sacked by the PM at whim, and a written constitution.

The research was hailed as “very positive” by former Governor-General Dame Cath Tizard, who for six years was the Queen’s representative in New Zealand.

The project would help New Zealand avoid getting into a muddle in the future, she said.

“My instincts are towards becoming a republic but I would want to ensure the change went smoothly. The Australians just barged into it and stuffed the whole thing up. Nobody had thought through the consequences.”

The research is not linked to NZ becoming a republic, but I agree it will be very useful to have had it done so that any future change can be well informed.

Yesterday, Prime Minister John Key emphasised that the book was an independent project. “I’ve made it clear that I think New Zealand will eventually become a republic but I have no plans to push that forward and it won’t happen on my watch.”

I think the logical time to have a vote on change is when the Queen dies. Hopefully that is many years off.

Quentin-Baxter said the book would spell out the constitutional law and conventions regarding the power and influence of the Queen and her New Zealand representative, the governor-general. The authors would note any areas of confusion or controversy, but would not propose law changes.

One “shadowy” area, for example, was what power the governor-general has in forming a government if an MMP election produces a stalemate. …

The book would be neutral on the question of whether New Zealand becomes a republic, she said.

However, if New Zealanders voted in a referendum to have their own president to succeed the Queen, it would be an “indispensable guide” in working out where changes to our constitutional arrangements were needed.

Yep it sounds very useful. Not useful in the sense of something you can eat or drive, but useful for policy wonks!

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