Title: Luci Highfield Credit: Chris Banks Features Tuesday 20th September 2005 - 12:00pm1127174400 Article: 920 Rights
Luci Highfield Lesbian Green candidate Luci Highfield reflects on just how much the party's election result was harmed by $500,000 worth of propaganda funded by the anti-gay Exclusive Brethren sect. Those on the religious right have made phrases like "the rich and powerful homosexual lobby" into a mantra, but this year's election campaign has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were simply projecting. They've also come out – or in some cases, been forced out – of the closet. The million-dollar Maxim Institute is finally acknowledging its religious roots. Millionaire John Sax, who told earlier this year that he didn't call himself a Christian, is now proclaiming he is a “follower of Jesus' principles”. And the Exclusive Brethren? Their quasi-endorsement by National leader Don Brash and now infamous anti-government leaflet drop has the Green Party saying it may have cost them a seat. Among this propaganda was a threat that the Greens were going to “create rainbow communities” if elected. The Greens have complained to the Electoral Commission about the leaflets, which they say are full of half-truths and falsehoods. The Brethren campaign didn't end there. A massive campaign of telephone “push-polling” was carried out, particularly in provincial electorates where there was a massive swing to National in Saturday's election. Although the Brethren denied being involved, calls made by teenagers were being placed to voters in these electorates, decrying the moral decline of the nation and “the gay marriage bill”. Greens candidate Luci Highfield, who stood in the Rongotai electorate, agrees that the propaganda has been damaging for them. It's difficult to find an area of the country that the Brethrens didn't reach. “I was pretty devastated when I found out that they were appearing not only in other electorates, but also through my own,” she says. “We have over 21,000 homes in this electorate, and we didn't know where they had gone specifically. In terms of the resources of our party, a week or two out from an election it's virtually impossible to be able to counter that sort of information. And it was a terrible feeling.” The leaflets targeted issues that would affect the wallets of the average New Zealander, alleging that the Greens were going to introduce a capital gains tax on homes, “which was a complete lie. I think that that may have impacted on people,” says Highfield. “The tone of it was indicative of people that were ignorant about particular issues. They mentioned we were going to be ‘creating rainbow communities' – I'm not sure how we'd create them, we certainly want to support them.” The Brethren campaign has already seen the Prime Minister call for a broad enquiry into third-party financing of election campaigns, something which could also affect the traditional trade union support of Labour. However, the Brethren campaign was something of an entirely different order. It was not open and transparent – it was stealth campaigning, and the anti-gay religious sect's involvement was only revealed after they were outed by the Greens. Highfield says there definitely needs to be an enquiry, otherwise we could be in for an even rougher ride at the next election. “I think the concern will be that if groups, or individuals, can get away with putting out information that's clearly untrue, or half true but has a negative impact, then people will think they can do that with impunity,” she says. “I think a lot of us will be looking at what, if anything, comes out of the complaint the Greens have made about it.” The amounts of money involved make stealth campaigning dangerous, as supposedly independent sources can reach huge amounts of the voting public. In addition, the production values of such campaigns distract from the dubious credentials of those behind it, a tactic that Maxim have been cultivating for several years now. “I don't think people are stupid – simply accepting what they see and hear,” Highfield explains. “But the difficulty is in working out what people can trust and rely on, and what they shouldn't. The Brethren leaflets were nice, glossy, professionally printed – and I think people would have thought, well who would put out information like this if it wasn't true?” Highfield didn't encounter a lot of homophobia while on the campaign trail, despite opponents best efforts to stir it up. She says it's important for the glbt community to remain politically aware and active in light of the newly-mobilised opposition. “The potential is there – as with the Treaty – for homophobia to be used as an divisive electioneering issue, and a lot of queer people will be on the receiving end of hate,” she says. “We need to keep building on making those links for people between their sexual orientation, gender orientation, and political power and processes. We need to keep talking, we need to keep being active.” The little homophobia Highfield did encounter was open and vicious, something she found surprising and shocking. “One woman at a candidates meeting said she thought that homosexuals were sick, and that our society was sick with homosexuals in it,” she recalls. “It was directed in a general way, rather than a specific comment at me, but it was certainly said openly.” Other comments, in particular those made at one of the ubiquitous Maxim candidate meetings, were coated in dog-whistle language. “Morals” and the “moral wellbeing of New Zealand” were mentioned constantly, but no specifics were given. “I'd have to say it was veiled,” she says, adding that the Civil Union Act was clearly still an issue for some people. Although it was preying on their minds, she doesn't believe this minimal discontent was enough to swing an election. In terms of bigotry, though, it seems the transgender community is still bearing the brunt of it. Despite the visibility and respect held widely for Labour MP Georgina Beyer, this doesn't seem to have translated into even grudging tolerance, let alone acceptance. Highfield says she witnessed NZ First MP Ron Mark make a meal of the issue at the Maxim meeting she attended. “I found it offensive,” she says. “He was talking about the Gender Identity Bill. He was disparaging about it, talking about men becoming women, in a very critical way, and the response he got from the audience was pretty shocking. It was considered to be a terrible, or at least humourous, sort of a thing.” Issues around transsexuality are going to challenge our views around inclusiveness, Highfield says. The fact that “gender identity” is not prohibited grounds for discrimination under the Human Rights Act is a concern, but whether anything will be done about it this parliamentary term remains to be seen. “There needs to be a whole process of education and implementation around this,” she says. “The next few months will be interesting, in terms of getting a sense of how much we can keep pushing a progressive agenda. Hopefully we can.” Highfield will be back for the 2008 election, and will continue to be involved with the Greens in the meantime. She says there will be plenty to do over the next three years at a local level, in Wellington, and around the country. "We'll be looking at what we've learnt from the election campaign," she says. "One of the good things that came out of this election is seeing clearly we have a good core of support in New Zealand for the Green party, and that remains solid." Chris Banks - 20th September 2005    
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