Now to debate some big constitutional matters

Want to get rid of the Queen? Have a written constitution? Entrench the Treaty of Waitangi? Or stop all such ideas in their tracks? You look to be about to get a chance to put your case.

After it reports the Supreme Court Bill back to the House, probably this week, Parliament’s justice and electoral law committee intends to inquire into the constitution.

This comes at a time of heightened interest in one aspect of the constitution, the behaviour, skill and probity of the public service: over the genetically modified (GM) corn scare in late 2000 (which at the very least has exposed a woeful lack of numeracy); over Mark Prebble withholding documents on that matter, against the public wishes of his boss, the Prime Minister, in the 2002 election campaign*; and over the Immigration Service withholding information from the Ombudsman.

These events raise the question of whether there should be an independent inspector-general of the public service to inquire into and correct such letdowns.

The events underline one line of resistance to replacing the British Privy Council with a local Supreme Court — that this society is too small to police itself effectively and needs an outside arbiter to maintain standards.

The bill will almost certainly pass, with Green and perhaps United Future support and intact, though maybe, judging by the weight of submissions, with a larger court than the original bill’s five (and no foreign judges nor specific Maori judge), a reference to upholding the rule of law and improved transitional provisions.

What the people think will not be sought. Not enough submitters to the committee called for a referendum on this important constitutional change to soften the government’s obduracy on that point.

Instead, the committee is set to invite public involvement in a different way and respond to demands by many submitters for a wider look at the constitution.

The terms of reference have not been set. But the inquiry will need to be far-reaching to keep faith with submitters. Some insiders expect it to range far and wide over:

* the constitutional documents, including the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Human Rights Acts and the Letters Patent (by which the Governor-General operates);

* the unwritten conventions by which the Governor-General, politicians and public servants operate;

* the place of the Treaty of Waitangi and its “principles”, which are increasingly, and controversially, being written into legislation;

* the state-citizen relationship and their rights;

* whether to abolish the Queen in favour of an elected president in a republic and, if so, whether a ceremonial president or one with some power;

* whether all this should be written down in a formal constitutional document which can be adjudicated on by the Supreme Court.

Of all of this dauntingly broad and deep bill of fare, the Treaty is by far the most complex. At an unofficial constitutional conference in March 2000, the treaty dominated discussion and exposed a wide range of irreconcilable views.

At one extreme, some Maori say the Treaty is the constitution and cannot be subordinated, even by inclusion in a written constitution. At the other end of the argument, conservatives, including business lobbies, reject any formalisation of the Treaty in law — in fact, oppose any written constitution.

Conservatives can take comfort from the wide disagreement. Sheer volume and variety may bury the committee.

And whatever the inquiry throws up, don’t expect sweeping — or any — constitutional change in a hurry. Just abolishing the Privy Council, a relatively simple step, has taken two decades from when first mooted by a National party Attorney-General.

To initiate major change would consume a lot of the government’s political capital. Now that it has begun to lose capital — the foreshore, GM, the methane tax — ministers are in no hurry to risk more.

Helen Clark told Mana News yesterday “a republic is inevitable but there are far higher priorities on my agenda”. So she will “let sleeping dogs lie”. Which is prudent. This one barks and bites.

* Last week I referred to the Ruth Wilkie memo quoting her immediate boss, Mary Anne Thompson, to the effect that Clark was prepared to have Wilkie’s notes on the corn affair released “if necessary”. Thompson has denied talking to Clark about it. But this did not detract from my point, which was the implications of officials operating on the assumption, as Wilkie obviously was, that Clark had made the comment.

The Prime Minister’s Office has since told me the real reason Prebble withheld Wilkie’s memos was to avoid setting a precedent in a battle with the Ombudsman to get exemption from Official Information Act disclosures for the prime ministerial advisory group — of which Thompson is head and Wilkie was a member. Why this group, which is part of the Prime Minister’s Department headed by Prebble, should be different from other public service policy units is not obvious.