A Brief Report – Celebrating 20 Years of the Bill of Rights

A brief account of the public lectures from Sir Kenneth Keith and Rayhan Langdana on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the passing of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

The 20th anniversary of the passing of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is being celebrated by the New Zealand Centre for Public Law, with a seminar introducing two different perspectives on the Bill of Rights Act.


Claudia Geiringer started by introducing the topic.

She described the Bill of Rights as one of the constitutional changes introduced by the radical 1984 Labour government. The drafting of it was led by former law professor Geoffrey Palmer and the initial reaction to it was not favourable. Originally intended to be supreme law (so that judges could use it to strike down other laws that didn't comply), there was a hostile reception with many opposed to the idea of transferring power from Parliament to the judiciary.

With the thought that something was better than nothing, the law was weakened so that it didn't override other laws. It was passed in this form on the 28th August 1990 (text of legislation, summary of rights).

While this was seen as a cop-out by many, the Bill of Rights has still had a significant effect on law making and justice in New Zealand. Indeed, the idea of a non-binding Bill of Rights is now seen as a viable constitutional option with some other jurisdictions such as the UK, and Victoria and the ACT in Australia adopting similar laws.

Sir Kenneth Keith

The first speaker, Sir Kenneth Keith, was involved with the drafting of the law. Since then he's been a Supreme Court Judge and is currently a judge at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

He started out by listing the rights that were important to him when he was 17: education (which was a duty as well), healthcare, housing, the right to work – none of which are in the Bill of Rights. While he was aware of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he was more interested in Roosevelt's four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

The aim in the 1980s was to create something that would work, that could overcome the skepticism and fears. Two major issues were how to take into account the rights of Maori and include the Treaty of Waitangi.

Kenneth quotes Geoffrey Palmer saying in the white paper that it should be "a set of navigation lights for the executive and legislature" and that the aim was not to strike down law but to guide it.

While initially the Bill of Rights Act was ignored, partly due to a lack of education, it has now taken its place in the NZ legal framework. This is obvious just from how often it is referred to in laws and legal argument. In his view, the Bill of Rights does a good job in helping to ensure good legislative process. "It's important that we have healthy process in a democracy."

He then referred back to his earlier comments about including economic or social rights, or possibly including some idea of property rights, but doesn't really see that this is a good idea. These are the sort of issues that should be sorted out politically rather than by the courts.

Rayhan Langdana

The second speaker is Rayhan Langdana, a 17-year-old college student from Wellington College.

He starts off by saying that his generation has lived with the Bill of Rights all of their lives. While they don't know that much about it, they have the perception that it's a good thing for them and the country. They don't know the law that well but they are keenly aware that they have rights.

As far as Rayhan is concerned, New Zealand has always had equality, democracy and freedom. He takes it for granted, particularly the right to democracy and freedom from discrimination, until he compares our situation to what happens in other countries such as China and North Korea.

However, taking these for granted leads to apathy. He sees his fellow students as not motivated to get involved in politics as it's "all been done" – and that this can be seen as a sign of the success of the Bill of Rights.

He then talked about his own experience as an Indian (from Ireland) in New Zealand. He feels that he hasn't experienced racism here, more just the mindless "currymuncher" insults of the unimaginative. However, he warns that we are possibly too over-sensitive, that people are too quick to cry racism for trivia like schoolyard insults.

(Aside: he moved from Ireland when he was 7 years old and described himself as "the only non-Pakeha in his area" of Ireland. This use of "pakeha" to describe the Irish in Ireland seems inaccurate to me.)

Rayhan finished off by proposing two changes to the New Zealand constitution that he though would help to raise youth awareness and participation in our democracy:

  1. Lowering the voting age by one year;
  2. Setting aside some seats in Parliament for people aged 17-21.

Also see this article from NoRightTurn about 20 years of the BORA.