This week, Bryce Edwards pointed out that there was some validity in John Ansell’s criticism of the Constitutional Advisory Panel (CAP) referring to New Zealand as “Aotearoa New Zealand”. I have to agree, to an extent.
Ansell argues that as New Zealand is a democratic country then any name change should only occur through referendum. He also claims that he is not opposed to the particular name used by CAP just the process by which it was used (although my gut tells me that he would object to Aotearoa New Zealand being an option at all on a referendum).
So does he have a valid point? Somewhat.
Referendums are a good way of obtaining population consensus. But referendums are not the appropriate way for obtaining consensus on all issues. Ansell’s assumption is that usage of Aotearoa New Zealand is best decided by referendum. And on the face of it, many would agree. But only because there has not been a good argument in response to his claim (well, none that I’ve seen yet). In fact, the only responses seem to be emotive or dismissive of his claim.
Here is where I disagree with Ansell – Aotearoa has customary usage. It has been used to refer to our country in both political and non-political institutions, throughout our history, in the marketing of our ‘brand’ – and most prevalently in our national anthem.
It is clear that we use it by custom. Custom is a consensus model. And it is a model that is more reflective of a society than a referendum. Custom links generations. Not just those who are eligible to vote at the time of a referendum but also our ancestors and future generations (whether they be Maori or non-Maori).
Our customary usage suggests that citizens accept the use of Aotearoa New Zealand as a description of our country. Moreover, there is little evidence to suggest that we should not refer to our country as Aotearoa New Zealand aside from Ansell’s recent rant.
So in summary, while Ansell was right to point out that consensus should form the basis of constitutional changes because we are a democracy, he starts on the assumption that there wasn’t consensus, simply because there was no referendum.
International law accepts custom as a valid source of authority. And there are certain circumstances in which custom is both sufficient and preferable.
Referendums have both a financial and social cost. The point of a constitution as Ansell points out is to ensure there is equality. But he negates his own argument when he claims that a referendum is required in the name of democracy and equality. Referendums serve majorities. If only the majority have a right or the power to make decisions for the whole of a country, then inequality remains and the intention of a constitution is lost.