Government ministers are bending the branches of government to breaking point, Helensville, and lawyer, MP Christopher Penk says.
By constitutional convention, respective roles played by our three branches of government are deliberately distinct. The “executive” (which is led by cabinet but includes all the civil service) basically runs the country. The “legislature”, aka parliament, passes laws defining the limits of that executive power, among other things. And the “judiciary” (our court system, more or less) applies the law, deciding each case on its individual merits in accordance with existing legal norms – without fear or favour and free from political pressure.
The doctrine demanding a separation of powers is a sacrosanct safeguard within our partly written, partly unwritten constitution. Its importance lies in preventing any one individual or group from gaining an outsized portion of power.
Taken together, constitutional safeguards have helped to keep New Zealand blessedly free of corruption in our short but proud history. Enjoying such stability and certainty is an international advantage that we should guard jealously and zealously. . .
He gives four examples where ministers’ behavior has weakened the constitutional framework:
* Andrew Little’s comments on a perceived problem with bail
* Little’s comment on the decision not to prosecute over the CCTV collapse.
* Clare Curran’s tweet on a police prosecution.
* Grant Roberston’s threat to make an example of landlords illegally raising rents.
In this country it’s pretty hard to hold a government to account when it bends, or even breaks, constitutional convention. That’s the thing about conventions, of course: for better and worse, they’re almost impossible to enforce. The flexibility of our constitutional arrangements is actually a real strength most of the time (whatever advocates of a comprehensive written constitution may say), so this is not a criticism but an observation.
That said, with few firm legal constraints in the form of “black letter law”, political accountability becomes all the more important. As Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, that is where we come in. And take note, ministers: we will.
The transition from opposition, where there is greater leeway for criticism, to government and cabinet where much more circumspection is required, isn’t always easy.
But that’s no excuse for bending the branches of government as these ministers have.
Adam Smith writes on this at Inquiring Mind.