Foreshore and seabed information   |   Constitutional arrangements

A Tempest in a Teacup

15 April 2005

On June 15, 1775 John Wesley wrote a letter to a Frederick North, First Lord of the Treasury, in which Wesley, a Tory through and through, argued in defence of the American colonist's struggle for independence. In May 1773, North had succeeded in getting the English Parliament to pass what the colonists referred to as the infamous Tea Act.

Behind the Tea Act was an ongoing trade war between the English East India Company and Dutch contraband tea. The Tea Act outlawed the importation of the Dutch tea and imposed a modest tariff of threepence a pound on tea exported to the colonies. The East India Company was sitting on over 18 million pounds of tea in its company warehouses in London.

In response handbills were distributed throughout the colonies, in particular, Boston and New York, warning that the Tea Act and the diabolical promise of cheap tea, was another attempt by the British to lure Americans to accept taxation without their consent. The physician, Dr Benjamin Rush, declared the chests of tea being shipped to colonies contained in them 'a slow poison, something worse than death - the seeds of slavery'. In December 1773, a group of approximately 50 men dressed as Mohawk Indians stormed the decks of the British frigates, the Dartmouth and the Eleanor and destroyed 342 chests of tea. In American history this event became known as the Boston Tea Party and marked the beginning of the American Revolution.

Wesley's letter reveals an interesting departure from his usual conservative political position, "I do not intend to enter upon the question whether the Americans are in the right or in the wrong. Here all my prejudices are against the Americans ... And yet, in spite of my long rooted prejudices, I cannot avoid thinking, if I think at all, these, an oppressed people, asked for nothing more than their legal rights, and that in the most modest and inoffensive manner that the nature of the thing would allow."

One of the consequences of the American revolution was a written constitution guaranteeing every American certain inalienable rights under the law.

You may not have noticed that the Constitutional Arrangements Committee recently called for submissions on New Zealand's existing constitutional arrangements. I learned that New Zealand is one of only three countries in the world without a full and entrenched written constitution (the others are Britain and Israel). New Zealand's "unwritten" constitution consists of the 'prerogative powers' of the Queen, statutes with constitutional significance, and the decisions of the courts which make up constitutional law and conventions. Such statements left me feeling concerned rather than informed.

What really disturbed me was the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in the Constitutional Review process. No mention was made of the proper and legitimate place of the tangata whenua. The communication said the review process would attempt to balance the respective interests of Maori and the Crown and express the ongoing relationship between Maori and the Crown. It implied that the grievances of the past were being settled and the nation could move on!

Forgive me, if I am a bit sceptical. Is this is a constitutional review or an exercise in entrenching parliamentary privilege? Perhaps we need a written constitution that protects the inalienable rights first of the tangata whenua and second, all other New Zealanders. Governments who are not constrained by written constitutions, even with the best of intentions, can easily deny people their legal rights. Given the intimate involvement of the early Methodist missionaries in the Treaty process isn't it time for the Church to ask for constitutional reform?

Jim Stuart
This article will be published in 'Touchstone', May 2005.

'Race', 'Privilege', and 'The Treaty'   |   Peace Movement Aotearoa