Sir John A. McDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, has been oft-quoted for suggesting that the Canadian Senate was a place for a “sober second thought”.
It was, and is, an upper house modelled on the English House of Lords – the members are not elected, but are instead appointed by the Governor on the advice of the Prime Minster. In that regard, it follows the original idea of a senate – ‘the assembly of elders’. And in such a case, a senate works. The Government has the right to appoint whoever they want to the upper house, meaning it’s not a site for politicking and policy-blocking, and instead provides McDonald’s quote with weight. It does, however, bypass the notion of true democracy, and Stephen Harper has long suggested an overhaul of the Canadian senate.
In Australia and the United States, they have a very different senate. In those cases, with the members elected by the electorate and still holding the same rights with regard to passing legislation, it certainly leads to issues within the political structure of the nations. The deadlock in the USA of late, and John Kerr’s dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975 are examples of the political instability that can result.
Those ‘senates’ (the word senate is misused in such cases, but is called such in both countries anyway) have valuable democratic ideals – and provide an intriguing gauge of public opinion. It allows a nation to suggest displeasure with their government; but does encourage policy blocking for political gain, and can bring economies to their knees through a government’s inability to act.
Both upper houses have strong positives, and large drawbacks. What everyone accepts, however, is that it needs to clearly reflect an elected representation. The Canadians and British appoint their members of the upper house, while the Americans and Australians elect theirs. The British have realised that hereditary peers bypass any democratic system, and the numbers of those left in the House of Lords are so small as to be in effect a nonentity.
In other words, every Western nation with an upper house has been progressing towards a democratic representation in one way or the other – irrespective of which system is best, reform towards the exemplification of people’s wishes has been the unanimous trend over the last 100-odd years.
But now Gareth Morgan wants to prove New Zealand as an exception, and wishes to move the nation in the opposite direction.
We abolished our upper house in 1950, in what Geoffrey Palmer has termed “the boldest constitutional change ever made by a conservative government.” The upper house we had, called the Legislative Council, was founded in 1840 as part of making New Zealand its own Crown Colony. When the New Zealand Constitution Act was passed in 1852, it became the upper house of a General Assembly.
From 1852 to 1891, the members of the upper house were appointed to life terms, meaning governments were often stymied by sometimes hostile members of the Council. Seven year terms brought in by John Ballance allowed the Council and House of Representatives to have caught up with one another (to a certain extent).
But it was still inefficient, and it wasn’t until the abolition of the Council in 1950 that governments in New Zealand finally had the opportunity to make necessary reform within their first term, without having to appease a Council potentially still reflecting a previous government’s seven year appointments.
It was a progressive move, which has since enabled the governments of New Zealand to make the required decisions at the required time. It was the abolition of this Council that his since allowed governments to progress. Can you imagine Roger Douglas passing his reforms of the mid-1980s with a Muldoon appointed Legislative Council, or Ruth Richardson being able to bring in the ‘Mother of all Budgets’ with a Council appointed by Michael Moore?
To reinstate an upper house in New Zealand would be an entirely backward move, regressing the entire political system the nation has developed. But to employ an upper house with 50% Maori representation not only defeats the purpose of a democracy, but also goes against the idea of the Treaty of Waitangi, which was intended to express the equality of every New Zealand citizen.
If New Zealand is to have an upper house, it must follow the path shown by the Australians, Canadians, Brits or Americans. Although none of those is perfect, they are all representative of the electorate.
Gareth Morgan’s proposal defeats democracy at its heart. He suggests that “Maoridom” should appoint the Maori members, and Parliament the others. That would mean that the citizens of New Zealand no longer have democratic control of their nation. One half of the upper house of New Zealand would be undemocratically appointed by a non-elected panel. Those appointed by Parliament, as in Canada, are at least being appointed by an elected government. If each house has equal legislative powers, as is the theory of such matters, then a full 25% of the New Zealand Parliament will be there undemocratically.
He also suggests that the upper house would require a 60% vote in order to pass legislation back to the lower house. Again, this contravenes our democracy, where majority rules. 60% means that majority rule is no longer sufficient, but instead three fifths support is required.
Gareth Morgan has suggested many things: a number of them insane, a few of them sensible. Most of them have come down to interpretation and personal belief. In the case of an upper house where 15.4% of the population has a 50% representation, however, he’s made a suggestion that contravenes the Commonwealth charter, goes against the Treaty of Waitangi, and fragrantly breaches the nature of democracy in this country.
So long as New Zealand remains a democracy, Morgan’s suggestion remains un-implementable. To suggest an undemocratic and racially-based subversion of the very pillars our nation and society rest upon is both ridiculous and contravenes the Treaty he is supposedly standing up for.
Sir Apirana Ngata was an outstanding politician, and a man who worked tirelessly for all New Zealanders. He was (and remains after death) followed, respected and adulated by people of all beliefs, ethnicities and values.
Similarly, the Maori Party have been often positive about the work those within this National government have done.
In both cases, the thread is the same – you shouldn’t be elected, appointed or judged on racial bias, but on the quality of work you do for all New Zealanders. Gareth Morgan’s blatantly racist and undemocratic views of our Parliament are not the way forward for New Zealand. The reinstatement of an upper house would be a backwards step for starters; to reinstate it in the way Morgan suggests would be to move New Zealand in the opposite direction to all other Western nations.
Devon Mace is a 17 year old journalism student, with a passion for cricket and politics.