Some ways to change the constitution or not

The Greens will vote for New Zealand First’s waka-jumping bill. That’s coalition government, co-leader Marama Davidson said: swallow a dead rat to get the organic carrot-cake the Greens signed up for.

Winston Peters wants to stop defections. Defectors from his party kept Jenny Shipley’s government afloat in 1998 after she fired him. An Alliance MP also defected, prompting a short-lived waka-jumping law in 2001. In the 2011-14 Parliament New Zealand First kicked MP Brendan Horan out of the party but he stayed on as an independent.

The waka-jumping bill presumes voters elect parties. The pre-MMP presumption was that voters elected MPs who happened to be in parties but could switch if they chose.

So in effect the waka-jumping bill adjusts the constitution (badly) — not the Constitution Act but one of the many other elements of the broad, small-c constitution that moderates society and regulates politics.

A positive adjustment would be to enact the Electoral Commission’s 2012 report required when in 2011 voters reconfirmed MMP.

The then Justice Minister Judith Collins parked it. Proper process would have been to get a bill drafted off the report for Parliament to decide, as Andrew Little scathingly alluded to in Parliament last Thursday.

The commission wanted to end the “waiver”, by which a party winning an electorate seat gets seats proportional to its party vote even if it falls under the 5% threshold.

Winston Peters in 1999 held Tauranga and brought in four other MPs. The Key-English government in 2008 got ACT five seats by giving it Epsom.

The Electoral Commission proposed to compensate for ending the “waiver” by cutting the party vote threshold to 4%.

This would almost ensure New Zealand First and the Greens survive the 2020 election. Peters wants to keep 5%, even though his party fell to just over 4% after both its previous coalition ventures.

There is another twist. Nearly 2% of the 7% who voted New Zealand First in 2017 told pollsters they preferred Peters going with National. Might they not think Peters waka-jumped by going with Labour?

All this assumes Parliament is what our democracy is about. Actually, democracy is about the people.

The Australasian Study of Parliament Group conference this month worried about declining trust in Parliaments “in a post-truth world”.

One option discussed was to develop and expand randomly selected representative “citizens juries” to inform and influence policy decision-making.

Why stop there? Modern technology enables “crowd” solving of technical matters, fund-raising and organisation. The Council of Trade Unions, for example, is starting to use its “crowd” to build its policy and legislation submission cases.

Some commentators are exploring the potential to use “crowd” techniques to feed into law-making — in effect, to make “citizens juries” vastly broader (and semi-official?). That might activate younger people, many of whom don’t bother to vote for oldster (over-35) MPs.

Policy involves far more complex judgments than fixing a bit of software or organising some money or action. So at the very least it would need years of refinement and development.

That takes us to “localism”, Local Government New Zealand’s push for a bigger role for councils and more sources of funding. Ours is the world’s most centralised democracy. Bringing more government to points closer to the people would be serious constitutional change.

And councils, being local, could be the place to trial “crowd” engagement in decisions.

If the “crowd” gets more involved, what is the public service’s place?

A discussion paper is due soon on the push by State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes and minister Chris Hipkins to update the public service, 30 years after the last big reform.

They want legislation, now being drafted, to set out purpose, principles and values for the state sector and rename it the public service, implying serving the public, not just ministers — a much-needed small-c constitutional reform.

The discussion paper also sets out four ways to break down the “silo” walls between departments and get unified, seamless pursuit of the complex “outcomes” Grant Robertson wants. There is a Crown-Maori section and an intergenerational dimension.

Chief executives have pushed back. They say rushing change risks a half-baked outcome.

A number also say they don’t have the capability to do the policy innovation work the cabinet wants. (Note: “capability”, which is not the same as “numbers”.)

That’s not the only edgy matter. Is free speech a core element of our constitution? Some freedom-lovers stumped up loads of cash so two Muslim-baiters could speak here.

Freedom is just being free from any constraint. The real democratic issue is liberty for all to live a full life. That implies for each citizen a responsibility for the liberty of others. Unconstrained vitriol can curtail the liberty of those attacked.

Liberty is the core of our constitution. Does the waka-jumping bill fit?