Peter Cresswell
Peter Cresswell

The Hooey From Helengrad

In almost the first breath of her maiden speech, new Attorney General Margaret Wilson boasts she will amend this country's constitutional arrangements. With almost the first breath of this new government a debate is organised in parliament to discuss 'Building a Constitution'. Can any one doubt that these two events are linked?

Whatever the reason for them being gathered there — and many confessed to being a little unsure at the reason — 117 official 'invitees' and four Maori gatecrashers took part in the conference. Wilson's former employer — the University of Political Correctness at Waikato — was itself well represented at the hui, as were other 'leading academics' such as Jane Kelsey, 'respected jurists' such as Eddie Durie, enough former Ministers, Prime Ministers and Governor Generals to form a faded sort of portrait gallery, and tangata whenua with real mana such as Moana Jackson, Annette Sykes and gatecrasher Atareta Poananga. The number of brown faces present — not all of them invited — contrasted with the extremely small number of people there who were not sucking off the state tit in some way. I counted ten.

While outside a Libertarianz welcoming party including an eight foot high Statue of Liberty greeted invitees, inside, decorative pilaster panels displayed gorgeously rendered 'fasces', the bundled stick motif adopted by the Romans and used ever since as a symbol of absolute political power. The contrast — to me at least — was striking.

For power was certainly on the agenda, or at least how to dole it out, and liberty was, as we suggested — largely uninvited to proceedings.

There was much criticism of the conference, ranging from Professor Jon Jensen, who called it a 'covert Waitangi plot'; to David Round: "If these overpaid mischief makers are allowed to drag our constitution off in their direction then New Zealand is finally stuffed"; to Roger Kerr: "If it ain't broke, then don't fix it"; to Annette Sykes: It's all a colonialist plot to hegemonise Maori (or something similar).

Margaret Wilson's view is that cultures, not individuals, are the 'accepted units' of constitution builders, that group rights outweigh individual rights. The many calls for Maori sovereignty would not have disappointed her, but there were few who favoured incorporating the Treaty into any new constitution. Palmer was one exception: "If the treaty is in a written constitution then it can protect rights against the legislature". Doug Graham by contrast: "We shouldn't incorporate a law that is so open to misinterpretation." Such incorporation, said Shane Jones, might of course 'tie down the Treaty's mana' as a 'sacred covenant', or as Ngatata Love said "I say what my tikanga is, not the law" (meaning if law is clear and objective, then witchdoctors won't be paid a fortune to give this week's interpretation of 'taonga').

Roger Kerr demurred: "The basic issue is not brown versus white, but the individual versus the collective." Annette Sykes spoke for the collective, decrying a world which contrasts the "western 'one' and the non-western 'many.'" She proposed a balkanised apartheid state where 'the many' would be controlled by a 'hapu paradigm,' with all power shared amongst hapu leaders, who have a 'fluid' approach to power. No one mentioned Bosnia.

There were outnumbered voices I occasionally agreed with, often with some surprise. Tipene O'Regan: "All states commit theft. A constitution should protect us from that." Tom Lamby, Jonathan Darby, Rod Deane Peter Shirtcliffe, Stephen Franks, and of course Roger Kerr each in his own way said that many are saying of government 'what are they going to do to us next?' and that consequently there is a need to limit government to stop it stepping on us. We should have one rule of law for all, liberty and individual rights protected, and contracts upheld. Sykes response: "If we promote individual rights, then we can forget about our collective responsibility to the unborn"! Moana Jackson told us that property rights are a myth, dreamed up and used to subjugate Maori. No one mentioned Zimbabwe, but Upton at that point leapt to his pen, no doubt excited at the echoing of his own previously expressed notion that rights are merely 'social constructs.' A similar view of rights wasn't the only thing shared by these two — Upton enthusiastically excavated his nasal cavity before wiping his trophy on his seat. Occupying that seat later on was Moana Jackson, gripping the sides fiercely as he no doubt treasured the myths he now shared with Simon.

The most heated session took place over the issue of local government. Unsurprisingly the head of Local Government Ross Jansen came out strongly in favour of bigger local government. Kerr and Franks came out strongly against, the latter describing Jansen's proposals "a breathtaking crystallisation of the level of naivety that characterise[d] much of the conference — and if that gives offence, I intend it!" It did, and he was drowned out. No one mentioned Adrian Chisholm, but by then no one could pretend they didn't know how unrestrained local government had smacked this man, or of his May 8 court date — Chisholm had already thrust as many copies of Deborah Coddington's story on his case into as many hands as he could shake.

But the overall impression of the event, as one participant said, that it was not actually a debate but merely people talking past each other. There was an aimlessness to the whole affair, a sort of purposeless action that suggested the purpose itself was contained somewhere else; what we were seeing was a giant trial balloon, a test to see how well the issue would go over. It did not appear to go over well, Clark conceding at the conclusion "that we're acting in the absence of any compelling demand to do anything".

Let us maintain our vigilance.

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