Can Parliament be reconnected to the people?

Ian Templeton is the doyen of practising parliamentary journalists. He started in 1957, which far predates the 1966 arrival of the father of the House, Speaker Jonathan Hunt. But Templeton was not invited to the dinner last Monday evening to commemorate Parliament’s 150th anniversary.

Treating Templeton as inconsequential to its celebration — in fact, not inviting even the press gallery’s chair — speaks volumes for Parliament’s disconnection. Contrary to the pontifications of academics and public lawyers, the media here are not, at least in Parliament’s judgment, of constitutional value as links between people and rulers.

Michael Cullen epitomised Parliament’s self-absorption in the commemorative debate earlier in the day. He railed against judges getting too big for their constitutional boots and proclaimed Parliament as sovereign.

Cullen’s annoyance is understandable. He has copped the foreshore and seabed burden the Appeal Court created. But his annoyance is not excusable: had ministers attended to warnings since at least 2000 by their old colleague, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, they would have anticipated the implications if the court called the area “land” and applied modern foreign jurisprudence, as it did.

Judges do defer to Parliament and the laws it makes, as our constitution requires. Given parliamentary inactivity on the foreshore/seabed, however, the judges had no choice but to make a judgment. Now, of course, Parliament is acting. The Foreshore and Seabed Bill is grinding through a difficult passage.

Moreover, parliamentary sovereignty is a quaint construct, a hangover from the days when the sovereign was the King-in-Parliament. Cullen was technically and legally correct but not substantially so. Under universal suffrage the people are sovereign. It is, or should be, our Parliament, not the MPs’. MPs are delegates.

Bill English, who spoke after Cullen, also asserted Parliament is sovereign. But in a magisterial speech English pointed out its failure: Parliament “is the history of our citizenship, of our movement from colony to nation” but has recently left the burden of defining “citizenship” to the courts by dealing with the Treaty of Waitangi “in a haphazard way”.

In a country which lacks other “institutions of public debate — public intellectuals, well-informed churches and other civic institutions”, English said, “the responsibility for defining our citizenship lies here” (in Parliament). Because it has ducked that, he suggested a lofty advisory council of senior former politicians and notables to prod it to its duty.

To understand why Parliament has failed that responsibility one needed only listen to the commemorative debate. The speeches were for the most part pedestrian and in some cases inappropriately partisan.

As National deputy leader Gerry Brownlee told a workshop session at his party’s Canterbury-Westland regional conference at the weekend, the “sense of celebration was extremely low”. The vast majority would have had no idea their Parliament, one of the world’s oldest, had passed an important milestone. It “may as well have been just another day”.

He bemoaned the lack of pageantry and ritual evident in Britain — and on the marae. Non-Maori, he said, needed a deeper knowledge of their cultural heritage. “We need to work out, as a nation, who we are”, which would involve a “blending” of the two cultures (shades of English’s “citizenship”).

Could Parliament do that? Not as it runs now, the Greens would say. Their ideal is “participatory democracy” (in reality participation by the self-selected, which Greens are but average suburb-dwellers aren’t). They want more public participation in Parliament’s affairs.

Co-leader Rod Donald said 37 per cent of 18-29-year-olds didn’t vote in 2002. There needed, he said, to be civics education in schools. Parliament must be run “on behalf of the people, rather than on behalf of the big corporations”.

And Parliament must clean up its act. “The average school playground contains far less bullying, personal denigration and rudeness than an average day in the House.” Who would give sovereignty to that lot?

The Greens are outliers in Parliament. On the foreshore/seabed they took the hikoi’s position, a truly minority position assigning ownership to Maori tribes. On Thursday Donald declared the families package worthy of support but moved a no-confidence motion because the Budget overall does not accord with Green principles.

This makes sense to Greens but no sense in parliamentary terms, which are deals and numbers. The Greens are idealists. To be a bigger force in politics they will need to become number-crunching realists. How to do this would logically be, but is not, the overriding question at their conference this coming weekend.

Nevertheless, Donald had a point in his call to Parliament to reach out more. It flunked its chance last Monday to make its 150th birthday a national occasion. Perhaps it will do better on its 200th.