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The Christian Right and Prostitution Law Reform

Thu 26 Jun 2003 In: Comment

Although it was a one-vote margin, New Zealand joined New South Wales across the Tasman and enacted the Prostitution Law Reform Act on Wednesday evening. This legislation decriminalises soliciting, brothel-keeping, living off the proceeds of prostitution, and applies occupational health and safety and employment protections to sex workers. In this article, I'll focus on the Christian Right, and ask what we can learn from this latest Christian Right campaign. Unlike lesbian and gay rights, prostitution law reform was a first-time controversial moral issue which had not been debated in Parliament beforehand. Unlike the euthanasia debate, prostitution law reform was supported by prominent medical groups and mainstream women's groups like the Business and Professional Women's Association, YWCA and National Council of Women. Opposing the legislation was the usual rabble of Christian Right pressure groups- the Maxim Institute, Right to Life New Zealand, Society for Promotion of Community Standards, etc. Unfortunately, the self-destruction of the Alliance and Labour/Green infighting cost the bill supporters at the July 2002 General Election, which saw the rise of United Future and New Zealand First as moral conservative parties and an influx of new social conservatives. Worse still, a disproportionate number of liberal National MPs were wiped out due to the risible state of that party's election campaign. In addition, Sandra Coney of Women's Health Action Trust opposed prostitution law reform, although a recent Womens Health Update carried dissenting views from Mary Hagen and Anna Pickering, who had worked with the Prostitutes Collective, and supported prostitution law reform. Coney's views were echoed by Dianne Yates, Hamilton East Labour MP. These conservative feminist voices were used by moral conservative opponents of the legislation, who had no intention of penalising male clients of sex workers when Yates moved her ill-fated amendment based on unworkable Swedish legislation. The Maxim Institute was the ringleader of the anti-reform campaign and used a familiar strategy that had worked for the Christian Right at the time of Michael Laws' Death With Dignity Bill back in 1995- it sought to ride on the coat-tails of more mainstream organisations while it attempted to mask its real agenda. Moreover, it was well-funded. Some have asked whether US Christian Right groups are involved with this organisation. However, prostitution law reform is not a live issue within the United States, and I saw more evidence of liaison between Australia's Festival of Light and the New Zealand Christian Right. However, it should be noted that Maxim Director, Bruce Logan, has had dealings with the Unification Church/Moonies over his "family values" stance, and this well-healed affluent conservative Korean-led cult has silenced conservative Christian criticism through its lavish funding of US Christian Right groups and the right-wing Washington Times newspaper. At present, available evidence limits this liaison to a shared platform at a International Federation for World Peace meeting. If the Moonies are congenial to the Maxim Institute, they manifested some foolish shortcomings. They made opportunist statements against increased Muslim immigration to New Zealand, despite the fact that the Federation of New Zealand Islamic Councils opposed the legislation. It is uncertain whether Ashraf Choudhary saw any of this anti-Muslim material before he decided to abstain in the final vote on the legislation. Winnie Laban's defection saved the legislation, as well. Laban voted for the PLRA's passage because of her inclusive commitment to social justice, and because fa'alafine and transgender Pacific Island sex workers visited her. Commendably, Ms. Laban stood alongside her sisters. Maori and Pacific Island conservative Christian leaders were not much in evidence, and moreover, the Maxim Institute's ACT/National/United Future linkages left it unable to reach working-class supporters of the legislation and change public opinion. One wonders how these Maori conservative Christians would respond to Maxim's statements against ameliorative reforms for tangata whenua. Maxim has already signalled that it intends to oppose the government's forthcoming Care of Children Bill, which would extend guardianship rights to lesbian,gay and transgender potential parents. It needs to be vigorously opposed on this issue of same-sex parenting reform. It will probably dredge up European and North American resources against queer parenting equality, and these need to be second-guessed. Moreover, we need to establish strong networks with child welfare organisations and professionals now, in order to minimise dissent. As for parliamentary opposition, the National Party needs to seriously reconsider its leadership. The UK Conservative Party faced a backbench revolt over the issue of lesbian and gay adoption in the House of Lords last year, when liberal Tories voted for the Blair administration's proposed inclusive adoption law reforms. In the nineties, the Bolger and Shipley administrations realised they needed to draft and include social liberals within Cabinet and caucus, but the Boag ascendancy produced a social conservative bias that may detract from mainstream party appeal. Similarly, ACT needs to consider what impression Stephen Franks and Muriel Newman project, and encourage balanced caucus perspectives from centre-right social liberals like Rodney Hide and Ken Shirley. As for New Zealand First, it is difficult to see any future for that party after Winston Peters retires, and its social conservative constituency may suffer attrition from mortality and morbidity over time. United Future may be already being punished for its obsession with opposition to prostitution law reform, particularly given Larry Baldock and Gordon Copeland's high profile on the issue. During the tenure of the PLRA debate, UFNZ's poll ratings have slumped to two or three percent. Destiny New Zealand may strip Maori conservative Christian voters from the CHP and UFNZ, if the CHP survives its next conference in Nelson this August. Tim Barnett, Catherine Healey, Calum Bennachie and their allies deserve to be congratulated on final victory at the end of a hard-fought campaign. Human rights and social justice have been enhanced within this country. Craig Young - 26th June 2003    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Thursday, 26th June 2003 - 12:00pm

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