A trend that might change the constitution

Queen’s Birthday Weekend is over and new knights and dames quiver with pleasure and honour. The quaint endures even in the digital age.

Opinion polls tell us the republic is some way off. William, Kate, George and Charlotte keep us swooning.

But constitutions evolve. We live in a republic in all but form. When here, the Queen exercises formal head-of-state functions by courtesy of New Zealand law.

She does formally appoint the Governor-General but the cabinet selects the appointee. It would be a small step to electing the appointee by popular vote. This was first proposed in the nineteenth century by Sir George Grey, a Premier and twice Governor.

To help us get the hang of the “right” sorts of people to choose from Parliament could for a few initial elections vet candidates.

The job is constitutionally important. It is largely ceremonial but there are “reserve powers” for use in a crisis, such as a parliamentary stalemate, and to request information from ministers and warn them against inappropriate action. Along with the courts, the Governor-General is a last-resort backstop against autocracy.

In 1984 there nearly was a crisis when defeated Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon, formally in power until the result was officially declared, initially blocked moves to address a serious financial crunch he left behind. Deputy Prime Minister Jim (now Sir Jim) McLay manoeuvred him to back down.

A directly elected head of state would have more status to speak for the people in exercising such powers and when abroad on official visits.

Another modest democratic change could require that Parliament, representing the whole country, award New Year and Queen’s Birthday honours, not the cabinet, in effect representing the monarch.

A third could be to respect that elections belong to the people, not politicians.

When the government asked voters in 2011 to decide whether to keep MMP, part of the deal was a subsequent Electoral Commission inquiry into improving it.

One widely endorsed recommendation was to remove the slinter by which a party which wins one electorate seat gets seats proportional to its party vote without crossing the 5% threshold. The Maori party’s current second seat is courtesy of that slinter.

Justice Minister Judith Collins pigeonholed the recommendation. Political convenience trumped constitutional propriety.

A compensation for small parties could have been to lower the 5% threshold to 4%, as the 1986 royal commission recommended.

Another candidate for constitutional reform is the election date. This is now the Prime Minister’s prerogative. In 2002 Helen Clark called a snap election on a flimsy pretext.

Parliamentary terms, and so election dates, could instead be fixed by law (after a referendum?) as in some Australian states. Clark and Sir John Key backed fixed terms, though for four, not three, years.

Next contentious matter: the distribution of power between central and regional and district councils. New Zealand is by far the most centralised of liberal democracies.

Parliament frequently overrides councils and has delegated many such powers to ministers. The current government suspended the Canterbury Regional Council when it couldn’t agree on water issues.

The Greens loudly opposed that, proclaiming local democracy. A Green bill in Parliament now would remove a requirement that councils cannot just create Maori wards but must hold a referendum.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Butler last year argued the case, pushed by Local Government New Zealand, for formal recognition of councils in the Constitution Act, to at least morally restrain antsy ministers.

And some, including Labour chief whip Chris Hipkins, say reform of parliamentary procedure is overdue.

All this tells us the constitution is far more than the Constitution Act.

It includes “conventions” — practices which over time acquire moral force — the independence of the courts (as Chester Borrows found last month), elements of the Treaty of Waitangi and foreign treaties which are incorporated into law or administrative practice and the Cabinet Manual, which sets out in extensive detail how ministers are supposed to operate and of which an updated version is due today.

Another democratic change would be to remove from the payroll funded by your taxes ministers’ political advisers whose job it is to help ministers get re-elected. They also block official information requests, in effect unconstitutionally.

But there’s more.

A widening range of government-appointed working groups, collaborative forums and other advisory mechanisms supplement the old public service. Within the public service new agencies such as the Social Investment Agency and Oranga Tamariki have new and different operating briefs.

But arguably more important is a shift, aided by digital technology, toward bottom-up ways of forming opinions and getting action.

If that small-d democratic trend goes on developing, it could turn out to be a deeper constitutional change than all of the above. The Queen? Ho hum.