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Labour's Rainbow Revolution

Sun 18 Sep 2005 In: Features

We have one, possibly two, openly glbt new MPs in Labour this term – but lessons have been learnt from the polarising election campaign, fuelled in some quarters by the wallets of the religious right. This year's cliffhanger election result has left the country's leadership hanging in the balance. It's unclear whether the next government with be a Labour or National-led one, and with that, the future of glbt civil rights. However, on a positive note, the collapsing of the minor party vote into National has seen a whole swathe of anti-gay MPs resoundly dumped. In addition, we're looking at possibly double the number of openly glbt MPs in Parliament. Four, possibly five from Labour (if special vote counts can up Labour's seat count by one) as well as National's first openly gay MP. Labour's Maryan Street [pic left] says she's feeling good about being the country's first lesbian MP to be out and proud from the start. "It feels like it's been a long time coming in a sense, although I wasn't ready to put myself forward before now, it's high time there was an out lesbian in Parliament as opposed to an outed one," she says. "I'm looking forward to taking up my role in the caucus, and contributing what skills, abilities and experience I have to the job, across a whole range of portfolio areas." Charles Chauvel is a tantalising one seat away from being Labour's fifth openly glbt MP. "We need 51 seats, and we've got 50 at the moment, so it's hanging on the edge of the seat stuff really," he says. "We thought it would take around 41% support for Labour to get me in, but we had assumed ACT wouldn't make it back. And the fact that that 1.5% has gone to ACT probably means that I'll need a little bit more." Political commentators are already playing up the role of Christian lobby groups, Christian money, and the Christian vote in this election. Apparently, they say, the swing to National has shown that New Zealand isn't as liberal as Labour thought it was, even though Labour's overall vote share hasn't changed at all. Is there truly a moral backlash, or has National just successfully cannabalised the moral right vote from the little guys? "I think there are some fears and anxieties people have had that have been preyed upon by the National Party," says Street. "The National Party has effectively created or exacerbated – one or the other – divisions within the country. I hope that a Labour- led government can heal some of those sorts of rifts so that people recognise they don't have to be fearful or anxious about people who are different from them." Street says it's time to reclaim National's divisive interpretation of ‘mainstream': "People who appear not to be the majority, have somehow been called ‘out of the mainstream'. The mainstream isn't about being a majority. It's about a collection of people with differences, but all going in the same direction. Not a majority of people all thinking the same thing, and being like each other. God help us from a society that would look like that. So it's redefining things and building on what we have in common, and celebrating the things that are different." Chauvel [pic left] says there has definitely been a mobilising of the Christian right vote in this election. "It's throwing its weight behind the National Party by and large, and that is a frightening phenomenon," he says. "It's the sort of thing we've seen in overseas jurisdictions, in the US and Australia. And its certainly something that those of us who value civil liberties and equal rights for everybody, irrespective of sexual orientation, need to keep an eye on. These people have a horribly regressive agenda on a whole host of fronts." Does National really have an anti-gay agenda, or have they just been clever in convincing that segment of the voting population to shift their allegiances? "I think it's opportunistic at the leadership level. I don't think that Don Brash himself is a homophobic person, I think he's probably a liberal," says Chauvel. :But I think his advisers made a decision when they saw the amount of financial and other support on offer from fundamentalist communities that they were happy to sacrifice us. And that's the worrying phenomenon, that they would make such a cynical decision." It's a phenomenon that has mirrored developments in Australian and American politics in recent years. "Ostensibly liberal congressmen and senators in the US have adopted pro-life, anti-gay, school prayer positions because there's Christian money on offer," Chauvel continues. "I think that's exactly what Don Brash and his colleagues did, and shame on them for doing it. Because I don't believe they believe that." Provided the current results hold, and Labour is able to form a government, where to from here? "I think the only consolation we can take from this election, if it pans out this way, is we've had a lucky escape for three years," Chauvel says. "We need to be on notice that that is exactly what occurred, and we need to be guarding against it, and be ready for it next time." What can glbt MPs do to heal some of the divisions that have been thrown up by the campaign? "I think as well as representing glbt issues we need to knuckle down and do all the other things that are required to lift the livings standards of people in New Zealand," says Street. "We need to continue to improve housing issues, we need to resolve treaty settlements." In terms of being labelled "the gay/lesbian/transgender MP", will increased numbers of representatives from our community lessen the likelihood of that? "Perhaps it will stop being a central issue for some people, and become just part of the mix," Street says. "After all, it is a House of Representatives." Chauvel says he's not bothered about being labelled, anyhow. "I'm proud of the fact that I'm gay, I've worked for 15 years on legal issues relating to discrimination and human rights for our communities, so I am who I am," he says, but agrees with Street that glbt MPs are MPs representing the whole country, not just their own communities. "The fact that we're gay and lesbian is one important aspect of our characters and personalities, but as you've seen with all the others – Chris, Tim and Georgina – there's an enormous amount of other things to contribute as well. We would be wanting to make that general contribution, as well as being there for our communities." At #46 on the Labour Party list, former Silver Fern Louisa Wall [pic left] came tantalisingly close to being in Parliament. Despite missing out, she is optimistic and buoyant about the election result, particularly in light of the immense amounts of money spent by right-wing lobby groups to oust the government. "It's power to the people," she says. "For me power can't be bought, and we should be really proud of ourselves as New Zealanders. A whole lot of interest groups poured a heap of money into the right agenda, and New Zealanders have said no – we want an inclusive New Zealand, we want a New Zealand where everyone is valued, where everyone has an opportunity to be successful." Can this conclusion be drawn from such a narrow left-wing margin? "It doesn't matter," says Wall. "If they spent ten times more than we did, that says a hell of a lot about the people of New Zealand, and the fact that we cant be bought. I think we've done an amazing thing as a country to reject this whole bombardment of propaganda from groups like the Brethrens. New Zealanders aren't puppets, and that's the wonderful thing for me. We've got heart and soul. And I look forward to working into the future to ensure Labour continues to be the political party of choice for most mainstream New Zealanders." Wall acknowledges there has been a definite swing to the right in rural areas, although she doesn't believe that so-called "moral issues" were the primary factor in play here, citing instead property rights issues thrown up by Labour's walking access legislation, and the erection of 400kv power pylons in Wall's electorate of Port Waikato. "We need to look at how we communicate with the rural sector," she says. "We don't have enough buy-in with them on some of the initiatives we want. As a party we're going to have to look at how we communicate with different constituencies. A lot of lessons have been learnt this election." She agrees with her fellow rainbow candidates that some serious mobilising needs to occur to counter a rejuvenated opposition. "I'm sure there's quite a few of us thinking we're in this for the long haul. The whole team is committed that we're prepared for next time. We're gong to have to start making those cakes and fundraising now." Chris Banks - 18th September 2005    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Sunday, 18th September 2005 - 12:00pm

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