Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Against the Royal Assent

Today Parliament's website has a piece up on the Royal Assent, the final step in the lawmaking process. You might think (with New Zealand being one of the world's oldest democratic governments) that something would become law once it is passed by the elected representatives of the people. But it doesn't. Instead it only becomes law when signed by the unelected representative of a foreign inbred.

This particular piece of theatre is a relic of the feudal era, when Parliament merely "advised" the King to make laws (and they could agree or disagree with that advice as they saw fit). But the evolutionary constitutional process which saw the UK slowly transform itself into a democracy retained the forms of absolute monarchy, even if the practices became democratic. So even today the monarch retains an absolute power of veto over legislation (albeit one that has not been exercised since 1708). It is only constitutional convention which constrains them.

That convention is a powerful force, and there is no practical possibility of the assent being refused in New Zealand. But the continued existence of this vestige of feudalism is an affront to our democracy. It should be removed. While laws being brought into force by being signed by the head of state is uncontentious, where the head of state is a figurehead like ours it is common constitutional practice for them to be obliged to do so, and for the law to come into force within a set time if they do not. We should do the same here.

Finally, some people see the royal assent as a constitutional safeguard, a final power by which the governor-general can prevent tyranny (which is variously equated with banning child beating, the 90-day law, and retrospective validation of Parliamentary spending; no doubt marriage equality will soon make this list). It is not. Real constitutional safeguards come from laws, not men. The royal assent is an arbitrary power which in theory allows democracy to be vetoed on the whim of one person. And that simply has no place in a democracy.