Now stealthily we’re changing the constitution

In Melbourne rich countries’ kids “non-violently” stop people gathering to talk about free trade. In Wellington Jenny Shipley leads her party into opposition to a free trade agreement. What is going on?

Mrs Shipley argues that she is not opposing the Singapore-New Zealand “closer economic partnership” (CEP) agreement, just its special treatment for Maori. But if her party, however sorely provoked by Helen Clark, persists in this political posturing, that opposition will amount to opposition to the CEP.

If her supposedly “free trade” party, which initiated the CEP negotiations, can turn tail upon a domestic policy pretext when it loses power, who can gainsay the Melbourne protesters, alleging that free trade is bad for workers in rich countries and the poor in all countries?

Two of our own progeny of affluence, Sue Bradford and Nandor Tanczos, have been lending a hand at the “non-violent” protests (police injured, a premier’s car trashed and ambulance workers attacked). They are there to advance the Greens’ arcadian vision of self-sufficiency and small and cooperative enterprise in which workers, not transnational corporations, are the capitalists.

The Alliance also opposes free trade – with, in its case, watered-down smokestack-economy thinking which has a hallowed tradition stretching back to tariff demands in the 1880s.

Jim Anderton represents Labour before it caught the free-trade virus in the 1980s. His opposition to the CEP gives parliamentary voice to the forgotten and fearful whom globalisation has fearsomely unnerved. To leave that view unrepresented in Parliament would be a democratic travesty.

More important, his opposition has forced an important constitutional innovation: for the first time Parliament will pronounce on an international treaty before the cabinet decides to proceed or not to the final stage.

While the wording of the parliamentary motion will stop short of formal permission to the government, it will be a Rubicon precedent. It is as unlikely henceforth that a major trade treaty will be ratified without the nod from Parliament as it that the voting system might be changed without a referendum.

That is the way we change our constitution – by stealth sanctified by practice.

Actually, Parliament has long had the power to scuttle treaties by refusing to pass such legislation as may be needed to give it effect in New Zealand law. By long tradition actual ratification of treaties has awaited that approval, sometimes for years. In practice, Parliament has never refused. Since there will be no Treaty of Waitangi clause in the incorporating legislation, that is in any case not an obstacle for National.

But the CEP vote is not the only constitutional innovation in the wind.

The government’s incorporation of Treaty of Waitangi clauses in social legislation passes over to the courts a decision – what constitutes the Treaty’s “principles”? – which constitutional tradition would expect to be made politically. Widespread incorporation of Treaty of Waitangi clauses would go partway towards, in effect, writing the Treaty into the constitution.

Then there is Australia. In backing examination of an Anzac currency in New York, Ms Clark said “silly notions of sovereignty” should not stand in its way. An “ever-closer relationship with Australia” is “inevitable”, she said.

But a joint currency would involve surrendering control of monetary policy to Australia, even if there is a supranational Reserve Bank with New Zealand representation. And that in turn would constrain fiscal – Budget – policy.

“Silly” or not, issues of sovereignty are involved. In the trans-Tasman context supranational means Australian-dominated. A supranational food safety authority has already taken GM labelling out of our hands. Commerce Minister Paul Swain, busily aligning competition, insider trading and takeovers law with Australia, acknowledges that merging the two stockmarkets (strongly backed by Ms Clark) might lead to a supranational securities watchdog.

Treaty of Waitangi clauses in social laws; a joint currency; a momentous parliamentary vote on a trade treaty. Ms Clark is promising to soften the first. But maybe there is a radical tinge to this government, after all.