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Guest Editorial: Election 2014

Posted in: Comment, Features
By Craig Young - 12th March 2014

The Corrective Party has objected to the orange ungendered Electoral Commission spokesicon, saying that all such neuters should be spanked repeatedly
This week, the Prime Minister announced that the next New Zealand general election will be held in late September. What does this mean for us?

During the current parliamentary term, we achieved a major victory as a multipartisan social liberal group of MPs voted to pass marriage equality and an associated degree of inclusive adoption reform which now enables married LGBT couples to engage in co-parent and stranger adoption if they so wish. Around only three hundred adoptions or so occur in New Zealand each year according to official statistics, and most are now co-parent adoptions within blended families, with the new partner of the biological parent understood to be the legal stepparent of the children in question. The Marriage Amendment Act was one of our most notable parliamentary victories, with a thirty-three seat margin separating parliamentary supporters and opponents of marriage equality.

Roughly every nine years, centre-right parties seem to take leave of their senses and make unwelcome overtures to religious social conservative parties, sects or pressure groups, usually with dire consequences for such parties. In 1987 and 2005, it was opposition to homosexual law reform and civil unions that tended to be the main excuse for such opportunism. In the case of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, the New Zealand Christian Right took over "rotten borough" constituency committees, which imposed unpalatable and unelectable militant fundamentalist candidates on the general public within urban liberal seats. Needless to say, the Lange administration won the consequent election and only lost a single seat overall to the Opposition. In the case of the Exclusive Brethren, Don Brash used that Australian-based extremist fundamentalist sect's displeasure at civil unions to leverage campaign donations and logistical support for the National Party. When investigative journalist Nicky Hager broke the story, it overshadowed and then destroyed Don Brash's consequent period as Leader of the Opposition. Although National underwent resurgence from its nadir in 2002, Brethrengate cost them that election. Even when National won the first MMP general election in 1996, it proved to be a pyrrhic victory. Under circumstances very much like the present day, a fundamentalist "Christian Coalition" had formed from the Christian Heritage Party and former National MP Graeme Lee's Christian Democrats. Needless to say, Graham Capill particularly was ill-suited to the demands of running a mainstream electoral campaign and both Lee and Capill had previously disclosed that theirs was a "coalition" of opportunism and convenience within the fundamentalist newspaper Challenge Weekly. Unfortunately for them, I happened to read the particular issue and article of Challenge Weekly- and later handed copies on to several interested parties on both sides of the political spectrum. The Christian Coalition failed to get into Parliament and dragged down National's poll ratings as the electorate recoiled from the prospect of a "toxic trio" government in this context, as then-Leader of the Opposition Helen Clark so memorably put it back then. It meant that there was a National/New Zealand First coalition for two years- until Jenny Shipley overthrow Jim Bolger in a party room coup in 1998 and then became Prime Minister in his stead. Peters then abandoned the erstwhile coalition, splitting his caucus several months later, explaining the antipathy of Prime Minister Key and many National Party MPs and activists for the populist anti-market rightist party in question.

Fast forward to 2014. Once again, a fundamentalist microparty is trying to parasitically attach itself to a centre-right government. So, what can be said about Colin Craig and his Conservatives in this context? For starters, if the Prime Minister wants to sit down and have a cup of tea with Colin Craig, he'd better check if that particular tea pot has not metaphorically grown cold. Neither Paula Bennett (Upper Harbour) or Murray McCully (East Coast Bays) intend to stand aside for either Christine Rankin or Craig himself, which means that unlike ACT and United Future, there may not be a bolthole constituency slot that might smuggle the Conservatives into Parliament under MMP's list-only parliamentary representation five percent threshold. One has to wonder, given current low opinion polling that renders this a forelorn possibility, whether now that they've had the chance to scrutinise the Conservatives at greater detail, they may not necessarily want them as a potential coalition partner.

It's not just the controversial antigay and anti-abortion religious social conservative rhetoric that Colin Craig spouts in party advertisements for binding referenda in the context of marriage equality and on his "Ask Colin" policy information page on the Conservative Party website. In Ian Wishart's Investigate article, Colin Craig precipitately stated that if he and his entourage did enter Parliament, it might perch on the crossbenches alongside New Zealand First, if that party survives the election. He has also not decided which constituency to seek election in yet.

That's not the only problem, either. The Conservatives describe themselves as "fiscal conservatives." Granted, they do have some policies that might fit this description. One imagines that National and ACT MPs and supporters like their 25% tax rate, climate change denialism, opposition to minimum wage increases for lowly paid workers, opposition to capital gains tax, opposition to quantitative easing fiscal policy, and competition for Christchurch rebuild contracts amongst contractors (although CERA Minister Gerry Brownlee has made no pronouncement on whether he supports such a policy. Perhaps not, as it might lead to still greater fragmentation and frustration in an election year, and resultant electoral backlash from Christchurch electorates. However, neither Colin Craig and his Conservative Party colleagues have provided us with tentative policy papers, cited references from sources consulted, or costings for their policies. Given that the Key administration prides itself on its fiscal responsibility, this may have rung some warning bells amongst National Party strategists.

And then again, other policies are not. According to his "Ask Colin" website and other cited sources, he favours a venture capital fund for 'promising' entrepreneurs and small businesses, and is ambiguous about Working for Families, KiwiSaver and increased foreign aid donations. He supports free healthcare for children, increased government investment in apprenticeship training, apparent polluter-pays water purity penalties, increased defence spending and compulsory repurchase of "idle" land. He has also made ambiguous statements about genetically modified crops that may or may not mean that he might be open to a binding referendum on a thorny issue that poisoned relations between the Clark administration and Greens back in 2002. Even the Greens have tacitly acknowledged that GM crops are not a deal breaker in the current electoral context. In any case, such a policy would mean that Monsanto and other GM crop providers would retaliate with probable breach of contract litigation against the government that provided such a referendum. Again, none of the above policies have been costed. There are no policy papers on the Conservative Party website, no cited references that one might consult to learn why the party has such policies, and once again, no costing.

And finally, there are the oddball, downright peculiar policies. The Conservative Party made a parliamentary submission on the Natural Health Products Bill and Colin Craig has stated that it is party policy that alternative health practices such as chiropracty and homeopathy should be funded within the public healthcare system- not on evidence-based pharmaceuticals, additional hospital beds and medical staff, preventative primary healthcare programmes, or decreasing hospital waiting times. Moreover, in an Ask Colin response to a question from an anti-fluoridation campaigner, Colin Craig made it clear that he is also anti-fluoridation.

Given the above fishhooks, no wonder some National Party strategists might prefer ACT or United Future. Moreover, just which constituency are the Conservatives trying to appeal to? Is it former ACT neoconservative fiscal and social conservatives, or is it New Zealand First's more interventionist elderly voter social constituency? Is its current policy mix intended to try to balance both constituencies, or is the lack of costing, transparent policy papers and available substantive reference items indicative that its so-called "fiscal conservative" policies are improvised tactical camouflage and a facade above a predominantly religious social conservative "trojan horse?" This is a wholly legitimate criticism. The Conservatives have existed as a political party since 2011. Surely three years is time enough for substantive, detailed and transparent policy development and properly costed calculations? All of the above ambiguities and shortfalls may have understandably triggered caution amongst National Party campaign strategists and the party leadership. Opinion polls seem to indicate that the general public isn't fooled, either, given that most have the Conservatives polling between one or two percent of total voter share. Are the doors to the parliamentary chamber swinging closed on the Conservative Party's election prospects? If so, who can blame National for wanting stable centre-right government without that impediment?

Given the threat to LGBT rights that the Conservatives represent and experience as a veteran political commentator on successive election campaigns, I make no apology for focusing on the offending fundamentalist microparty in question. But what are the other issues that we should be considering?

Obviously, transgender rights and anti-bullying reforms must rank high on the list of LGBT legislative reform's "unfinished business" agenda. It is long overdue and well past time that New Zealand directly includes gender identity within the Human Rights Act and protects the transgender community from discrimination on the basis of accommodation, employment and goods and services provision. We should also remedy remaining anomalies within official citizenship documentation, insure greater government funding of transition counselling, hormone treatment and reassignment surgery than currently exists, review funding arrangements for transitioning transgender prisoners and perhaps also introduce transgender child safety and protection legislation akin to California's Bill AB 1622. And, like the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Ontario, we should also focus our attention on inclusive antibullying legislation that includes gender identity and sexual orientation, in addition to policies against school sexual harassment, racist or religious violence or intimidation, anti-disability intimidation or violence, or any other identity-based bullying. The goal should be educational retention for the victims of bullying and retraining of bullies so that neither experience premature expulsion from education providers and go on to reach their full educational and employment potential.

Here's my problem with this. While Labour and the Greens have stated that they will address both policy issues, National Attorney-General Chris Finlayson has said that the government intends to follow the Crown Law Office opinion that gender identity discrimination is "included" within sex and gender discrimination. However, as Transsexuals of New Zealand and TransAdvocates remind us, that is an extrajudicial policy and may be overruled by the courts. In any case, it must be asked, why should transgender New Zealanders have to experience "second-class citizenship" on this issue- particularly when Australia has trans-inclusive anti-discrimination laws at the federal, state and territory levels which do include them, and Canada will probably finally pass Bill C-279 or other trans-inclusive anti-discrimination reforms to the Canada Human Rights Act if the Liberals and/or New Democrats come to power after the next Canadian general election, as seems likely? This is an unsatisfactory and unacceptable situation. It is two decades since the Human Rights Act was last reviewed. As he did with marriage equality, one hopes Prime Minister Key supports bipartisan reform initiatives if Louisa Wall, Jan Logie or anyone else introduces private members legislation into Parliament for that purpose.

And beyond that? What about our status as citizens, organised social constituencies and stakeholders? And why do we seem to restrict our policy interventions to issues like public health, preventative primary health, family law, epidemiology, same-sex parenting and endocrinology (in the context of transgender and intersex rights?) What about issues like housing access, especially emergency housing and its supply? What about welfare retrenchment and "reform" which might involve privatisation and redirection to unsatisfactory "faith based initiatives", as happened within the United States? What about religious charter schools? One hopes that they will be informed that they must respect the provisions of the Human Rights Act when it comes to any employment or educational service provision policies that might adversely affect any LGBT staff or students unfortunate enough to be caught within them- especially given that such has not been the case in the United Kingdom's comparable "academy" process, much to the concern and anger of the Cameron administration and LGBT organisations.

All of the above need to be on our minds as responsible and active New Zealand citizens and voters at the forthcoming September election.

[Graphic: The Corrective Party has objected to the orange ungendered Electoral Commission spokesicon, saying that all such neuters should be spanked repeatedly]

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Craig Young - 12th March 2014

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