Thursday, September 02, 2010

Not One of Us

I'm buggered. Shattered. My head hurts. It's taking me a stiff joint and a cheap cask of red wine to put my mind in the recovery position enough to speak of attending the Reconstituting the Constitution Conference at Parliament earlier today. Even for a political junkie such as me, the RCC was damn close to a terminal overdose of political enquiry. And there's still one more day to go, which I'm having serious doubts over.

I was accidentally invited to attend as a delegate, volunteering as a keen understudy when the intended invitee couldn't make it. I knew the territory well enough. I've been going to Parliament since I was 12. But it is a hostile and estranged place for outsiders these days, mainly due to the post-9/11 security death grip.

The young ones will never know it, but there was once a magical time when anyone could walk up the steps of Parliament and enter through the revolving doors. Like a genuine citizen. The watchmen were always there, but the only time there was a queue for watching the House in action was when the gallery was full.

These days, foreign dignitaries and plebs alike are all squeezed through the security sphincter. No matter that you might have just popped out for ten minutes for a smoke between sessions, a reboot of sorts, it's back through the door that goes ping.

It goes ping because I'm wearing my suit, an honour that is usually bestowed on weddings and funerals only. It's an old school hand tailored suit with braces. The honour I am bestowing on parliament is forcing me to be spread-eagled every goddamned time I return from a cigarette. If I go tomorrow, it'll be in my uniform, not theirs.

Mind you, if you're a beltway leprechaun with the correct badge of power, none of this applies. You can enter through any of the Members' Entrances. The Koru Club of power. These things are noted with belligerence. It is hard to swallow the fiction that the people are supreme in a democracy that treats its visiting citizens like terrorists.

So. Reconstituting the Constitution. David Farrar was there, as always. He's blogged it up very nicely. I'll throw in my notes too.

Session 1: Lessons from abroad

Professor Robert Hazell from London mentioned the Blair years of constitutional reform. Devolving powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, giving them the hassle of regulation without the kitty of taxation. It reminds me of the Local Government Act here. The House of Lords defeated Labour votes every 1 in 3, good odds.

The UK's Human Rights Act is inferior to NZ's Bill of Rights Act. Their Freedom of Information Act is second to NZ's Official Information Act. Although the UK's FOIA is restrictive and complex compared to NZ's, it still beats Canada's, Ireland's and Australia's versions hands down.

Dagg bless NZ's Cabinet Manual.

Professor Heinz Klug from Wisconsin looked at South Africa's constitutional reboot after Apartheid. Interesting mistake regarding SA joining the WTO too early, a third world population facing first world intellectual property charges when it comes to AIDS treatment. Weird facts likes the White minority veto on state spending up until 1999. The use of cartoons to explain the working draft of the constitution to the illiterate masses. The lessons of Constructive Ambiguity, which sounds a hell of a lot like the Treaty of Waitangi.

Speaking of which, Tim Selwyn should eat his blog for saying the Treaty of Waitangi will not be centre stage at the conference. Annette Sykes was there, and she wasn't the only one going on about it. You cannot discuss constitutional reform without mentioning the ToW. But anyway...

Session 2: The Republican question

A rather one-sided debate featuring Michael Cullen and Dean Knight, chaired by Sir James Bolger. Cullen's speech notes got leaked all over Sunday, and he pretty much abandoned them to admit defeat to the inevitable once QEII carks it. Agreement was reached that NZ would probably prefer the staus quo ceremonial head of state and not one with any executive function. That's what's the PM is for.

If ceremonial is the choice, why a popular election for it? What's wrong with a super-majority of parliament? It's an improvement on the current system, whereby the PM of the day chooses the Governor-General. Alas, it'll never happen under the Back-to-Brit Nats.

Session 3: The Need for a written constitution; strengthening the Bill of Rights and the place of the Treaty of Waitangi

Justice John McGrath chaired this segment. Mai Chen spoke ten to the dozen, fast forwarding through her paper on the pros and cons of a supreme law. Money quote from a guy called Richard Shaw who noted  that "the advent of the internet has not demonstrably rejuvenated people's engagement with politics, but that New Zealanders' relative disengagement with formal politics is being reproduced online."

Doctors Andrew and Petra Butler looked at expanding the Bill of Rights, including social, economic and property rights, but I think they're on a hiding to nothing on that one. Mai Chen mentioned the risks of Pandora's Box.

The highlight of the day was Judge Joe Williams, who came out with this gem (paraphrased); a New Zealand exceptionalism based on diversity and tolerance. He spoke from his notes hand-written in an exercise book. His subject was the Treaty of Waitangi, but it looked bigger than that from where I was sitting. I would happily vote this guy head of state.

Mai Chen tied it all together, noting the cleavages between minorities and majorities. I may not be Asian, gay or Maori, but I understood what she meant.

Session 4: Electoral Law, including Maori seats, MMP, fixed term and campaign finance

I had stopped taking notes at this stage. I was hoping for a stroke or aneurysm. Simon Power spoke sensibly, Charles Chauvel needs to use less Powerpoint. MMP isn't going anywhere. Neither are the Maori seats or four year terms. Logic and popular opinion seldom coincide.