From lofty republicanism to small tinkerings

Here is a tale of the ingenuous and the disingenuous, of a defeated Prime Minister and one in youthful bloom.

Jenny Shipley accused Helen Clark of an ill-considered diplomatic affront to Britain in raising the republic issue on Waitangi weekend.

Excuse me, but there was not a skerrick of ill-consideration, since we became fully independent in 1947 on Britain’s initiative 14 years earlier and in any case it will not be Britain’s monarchy we abolish.

Elizabeth is Queen of New Zealand. We had hastily to pass a Royal Powers Act before she toured in 1953 to ensure she could act as head of state while here. That we share our head of state with Britain is a hangover of nineteenth century-imperialism, frozen into twentieth-century diffidence. Ms Clark was doing no more than timidly tiptoeing into the twenty-first century.

Monarchist Mrs Shipley also accused Ms Clark of being “dismissive and disrespectful” because Waitangi Day is the day of commemoration of the treaty that “forms the basis of the way in which we interact as a people today”.

Her own MP, Georgina te Heuheu, a personage of standing in Tuwharetoa and in Maoridom generally, set her right on that. There will be a republic, she said, and Waitangi Day is an appropriate day to talk about it.

And Maori have been talking about it, at hui around the country. Some influential Maori thinkers argue that a written constitution, incorporating in some way the spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi, can (some say should) be substituted for the Crown. This recognises that Maoris’ long-believed special relationship with the Crown through the treaty has long been totemic only because the Queen (or her representative, the Governor-General) must act on the government’s advice.

But note Ms Clark’s reply to Mrs Shipley: the comment was in the course of a wide-ranging interview several days before Waitangi Day (Thursday actually). But this was disingenuous or worse since she was told it was to run on Waitangi Day. Ms Clark is far too savvy not to have been well aware of the effect.

But so what? Ms Clark is an automatic republican but not a passionate one. Even after debate is fully joined in this somnolent backwater the republic will be many years off.

In the meantime we must content ourselves with minor constitutional tinkerings.

The parliamentary select committee reviewing MMP is about to embark on its long and peripatetic hearings.

National and Labour would like an electorate-based system. A favourite is a hybrid limiting proportionality to the list MPs instead of to the whole House as under MMP.

On a split of 67 electorate and 53 list seats, as now, Labour would have got 63 seats on its own on last November’s figures. The Alliance would have been cut from 10 under MMP to five seats, ACT from nine to four, the Greens from seven to four and New Zealand First from five to three.

Small parties, therefore, will cling to MMP. And they have a glimmer of hope. DigiPoll found just before Christmas that 76 per cent thought New Zealand got the government it voted for (16 per cent thought not), 57 per cent thought MMP worked better than in 1996 (22 per cent thought not) and 89 per cent found MMP either very easy (47 per cent) or easy to use. If this mood holds, the sting will go out of the issue.

But if MMP does stay, there is a powerful logic to making the 5 per cent hurdle real and assign parties under 5 per cent their electorate seat winnings only. That would reduce the need for the unseemly contortions we saw last year as parties sought to help friendly parties get electorates and so evade the 5 per cent rule — and to outmanoeuvre rivals at the same game.

In more pressing need of attention is election management, which went badly awry on election day. One logical solution, to put everything to do with elections under a beefed-up Electoral Commission, as Australia does, was rejected in 1997. Now instead Ms Clark is musing about using New Zealand Post.

If that seems odd, wonder also about her passion to ban party-hoppers. Her anti-democratic and unnecessary bill closing stable doors late is due back in the House late this month to a chorus of contempt.

Now there’s something for Mrs Shipley to weigh in on with authority.