In 2016, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Butler proposed and published a written, codified constitution for New Zealand. Since then the authors have travelled the country, discussing with the public the nature of New Zealand’s identity and where the country is headed. After considering their conversations and formal submissions, this second book – with its revised proposal for a codified constitution – is the product of a year in development. This is Sir Geoffrey’s speech at the launch of the book last Thursday.

Our book stands on the shoulders of the entrenched provisions of the Electoral Act 1956. 

The provisions are reflected in the current law and an interpretation issue is currently before the courts.   

It is those reserved provisions that we have used in this book to provide our proposed model for how an entrenched written constitution in New Zealand could be protected. 

We believe it is vital that New Zealand has a codified written constitution. Especially in these uncertain times. 

Since September 2016, when we first published our original proposals in A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, Andrew Butler and I have spoken to 3,500 people at meetings all around New Zealand. 

And we received about 440 submissions from members of the public on that first set of proposals. 

As a result of this public consultation, we have changed our views and we now present those revised views in this new book “Towards Democratic Renewal.” 

Democracy is important. 

Once thought to be inevitable, democracy is now under siege 


Autocracy is becoming fashionable again – think of Russia, China, Turkey and even Hungary. There is a dangerous trend towards authoritarianism. 

We have had Brexit and the election of President Trump. 

Post truth politics, fake news, populism, extremism and social media are a lethal combination. 

Western democracy seems to have lost its mojo and is on the retreat. 

You may say we do not have these problems in New Zealand. 

I say some of these features will inevitably come here unless we are vigilant. 

A sound and robust Constitution is a good protection. 

The liberal democratic state has brought us many advantages and it is worthy of preservation. In that sense this is a conservative project. 

New Zealanders do not know much about how they are governed – we found this out when we spoke around the country. It would be better if our governance arrangements were more widely known. 

Democracy can turn into autocracy rather easily. 

We face many challenges: the fact that economic growth is no longer inevitable; the fact that transformation of our economy is necessary to deal with climate change; as well as new developments such as robots, artificial intelligence and the future of work. 

To meet these challenges, we need more checks and balances and more openness in our systems of governance. 

Openness is the best guard against corruption.   

People should be able to find out easily how our system works and what the rules are. 

Statistics New Zealand tells us there is growing diversity of people from different cultures living in New Zealand. For example, Asians are expected to out-number Maori here by the mid-2020s. 

How can one expect immigrants who weren’t born here, to understand our obscure constitutional conventions that have been described as “understandings that no-one understands.” 

What do we want to do? 

We want the powers and functions of the main elements of government to be set out clearly and authoritatively in a constitution that has been carefully considered and enjoys wide community support. The New Zealand people need to own their constitution and identify with it.

Our proposals for a written constitution can be summed up in 15 simple points:

1 Write the constitution down in one place

2 Make it superior law

3 Entrench it

4 Strengthen the Bill of Rights

5 Discuss the Treaty

6 Make it a constitution that reflects a kiwi identity with a Kiwi head of state with some power

7 Define the State

8 Improve Parliament

9 Provide clarity by defining the powers of government and the limits on those powers

10 Protect the Judiciary and enhance the rule of law

11 Make treaties democratic by ensuring Parliament approves them

12 Be more open and strengthen the Official Information Act

13 Have regular reviews of the Constitution

14 Be prepared for emergencies with a power of suspension of the constitution

15 Involve the people in deciding what should be in their constitution.


How does the second book differ from the first? 

We have made major and detailed changes in our proposals. 

For example, the Head of State, or Kaitiaki, is given power to refer Bills to the Supreme Court if they are thought to be inconsistent with the Constitution. 

Another change is the proposal that the Speaker should be elected by Members of Parliament by secret ballot, as in the United Kingdom. 

In this new book there is much more about how the institutions of government should work in practice.  We say much about how to deepen citizen engagement so that better connection between the citizens and their government is achieved. 

We explore how to create a deliberative democracy, and the use of citizens juries and assemblies. Ireland is very instructive in this regard. 

More participation by citizens in the decisions of government is encouraged. And weaknesses in the media that have reached constitutional proportions are noted to require attention.

We have completely altered the Preamble to provide a sense of New Zealand identity, values and basic principles are stated in Article 2. 

And the Bill of Rights comes first in order before the institutions.

We have cut down the bulk of what was previously included in the Constitution itself. And we have made the drafting clearer and more accessible.

Much prescription is gone. This has enabled us to shorten the draft considerably. A constitution does have to set out the functions and powers of Parliament, Government, the Head of State and the Judiciary, and our new proposal does this. But much less detail is included now, and we think we have achieved the right balance.

We are also delighted to have been able to present the text of the Constitution translated in to Te Reo Māori.

Our aim with this project was to kick-start a conversation and provide a resource that can be used as an educative tool about constitutional reform in New Zealand. If New Zealand is to reform its constitutional arrangements, the authors are convinced that it will have to be as part of a government-initiated undertaking to carry out a thorough and properly resourced programme of public education and engagement.  

We look forward to seeing this happen soon.