I aten’t dead

April 2017: a hell of a month offline, so damned quiet around here. But I’ve managed to do a bit of writing elsewhere, so don’t fret!

Today at The Spinoff: Enough bullshit. After all these years the Pike River families deserve answers

Something you notice about with the Pike crew is how they speak in the abstract. “Our boys.” “Our men.” It’s a natural coping mechanism. No one could survive six years with no closure, no justice, and very little hope, feeling every bit of the grief you’re entitled to when your husband or son goes to work one day and never comes home. Fighting just to get a basic investigation of the crime scene where he died, and accountability from the people whose inaction or negligence or outright greed killed him.

I got involved early with Stand With Pike, by virtue of being the closest millennial to hand when the crew were trying to get the word out about their picket, battling West Coast cellphone drop-outs and Facebook’s clunky Page Manager app. Contrary to the fever-dreams of Matthew Hooton, I’m not paid for it. It’s just the right thing to do. Because it’s so counter to every value I hold, that after six years, no one has been really held to account for letting 29 men die. Anna and Sonya and Dean and the others should not still be fighting for answers and justice. They should never have had to fight for it at all.

And a few weeks back at Overland: In New Zealand, where abortion is still a crime

Today, getting an abortion in New Zealand can involve five separate medical appointments: the initial pregnancy test and referral to an abortion provider (if your doctor provides referrals), two appointments with certifying consultants (if they both approve you), an initial consultation at the abortion clinic, and the procedure itself. …

In the 1970s, the Sisters Overseas Service helped fly women who wanted an abortion to New South Wales. We like to think those days are behind us, but in 2013, a young woman from Wellington was reduced to crowdfunding $7,000 to fly to Melbourne for hers.

How have we let this go on?

Back to the keyboard …

The political prospects for 2017: living our values

This week I spoke on an panel with Morgan Godfery and Mike Munro at the Fabian Society in Wellington on the political prospects for 2017. A podcast of the discussion should be up on the Fabians website shortly. In the meantime, here’s my speech notes – about 90% accurate to what I ended up saying on the night, which is how these things always go.

The political prospects at the start of 2017 are looking pretty bleak. The polls aren’t great. The right is in ascendancy around the world. I don’t even want to know what new fascist executive order Donald Trump has signed in the time it took me to walk here this evening.

The challenge for the left is pretty massive. With crises at every side – climate change, housing, inequality – it’s not enough for us to just get over the line. We need profound progressive change. A fundamental shift in the consciousness of our society.

It can be done. The trick is not to take the wrong lessons from Trump.

We’ve heard it again and again since November. “The white working class feel ignored. That’s why Trump won. That’s why Brexit passed.” In New Zealand, we talk about Waitakere Man, a narrow-minded stereotype from a less-sophisticated Outrageous Fortune. We’re not talking enough about his issues. We’re not paying enough attention to his needs.

And subtly or more usually unsubtly, we hear, “Women? Shush. Brown people? Shush. Queer people? Shush. Your issues are distractions. No one wants to hear about it. Wait until we’re in power.” Feminism lost Hillary the US election, or maybe it was Barack Obama saying a few mild-mannered things about police violence. Here in New Zealand, senior Labour advisors publicly bagged Louisa Wall’s marriage equality bill as a distraction from issues that matter.

It’s like we’ve forgotten a basic fact of leftwing politics. It’s built on solidarity.

That’s the fundamental divide between left and right. We believe in community and cooperation. They believe in self-interest. We’re about the collective. They’re about the individual. We know that the important question is not “how does this benefit me personally?” It’s “how does this benefit us all.” Standing together, not because we’re all the same and we’re all after the same thing, but because we have the same enemy: capitalism, which takes many forms: patriarchy, white supremacy, social conservatism.

The Standing Rock occupation against an oil pipeline in North Dakota does not impact me directly. It’s not my water that could be polluted or my ancestral lands being torn up. But I know the struggle at Standing Rock is aligned to my struggle – against corporate power, against environmental destruction, against dispossessing and exploiting indigenous people and their land. It isn’t about my benefit. It’s about my values.

I don’t want to assume everyone here has sat through at least one Labour Party conference or candidate selection, but I know you’ve heard the line: “My values are Labour’s values. And Labour’s values are New Zealand’s values.”

We understand the importance of values. But we’ve forgotten that they’re not theory. They’re practice. We need to live them.

When we live our values, nothing’s a distraction. Every issue is an issue that matters.

Take healthcare. We Kiwis take such pride in our public health system. We look at the absolute disaster of American healthcare and feel very smug.

Labour’s policy platform says this about health: “a nation where all New Zealanders, regardless of income or social circumstances, are able to live longer and healthier lives because they have the knowledge to make informed health decisions and the support of a strong and adequately funded public-health system.”

That’s a damn strong set of values.

But let’s take three issues which put that principle on shaky ground. (This may be where I lose some of you.)

Abortion. Abortion is still a crime in New Zealand. It’s difficult to access, especially if you aren’t bureaucracy-savvy or don’t live in a major centre. A pregnant person on the West Coast will have to travel to Christchurch, at least twice, to a clinic which is only open a few days each week, in order to terminate a pregnancy. They’ll need to take time off work or find last-minute childcare and god forbid they’re in a vulnerable situation where they have to keep it all a secret. We’re talking about a safe medical procedure, a basic question of personal agency, a life-changing situation which is not adequately supported by our health system.

Assisted dying. Also a crime.  We deny people of sound mind the ability to make their own decisions about the end of their own life, no matter how much pain they’re in or how much time they have. We don’t let them treat their pain with cannabis, either.

And trans health care. Trans people face horrific difficulties getting the health care they need, and that’s putting aside the horrific levels of harassment, discrimination and violence they experience. The waiting list for trans feminine surgery, or male to female surgery, has 71 people on it. Doesn’t sound too bad – except that at current rates, someone going on the waiting list now will be there for fifty years.

This surgery literally saves lives. Those of us who don’t have to live every day in the wrong body might find it hard to comprehend. But it is absolutely basic, necessary medical care, which our health system does not provide.

What do these three issues have in common, besides making me incredibly angry? They’re Kryptonite, as far as our leftwing politicians are concerned. They’re dismissed, regularly, as unimportant distractions. Alienating fringe issues.

We’re talking about healthcare. About the value we place on supporting every New Zealander to get the treatment they need, quickly and effectively. Unless you’re unhappily pregnant. Or terminally ill. Or trans.

When we talk about values, and say we believe in certain things, and then we turn around to people and say “shush! Wait your turn! We don’t want to talk about your health, or your lives, or the support you need, it’s a distraction!” all we do is undermine ourselves. We show that our values aren’t dearly-held and unyielding – they’re flimsy. No one elects flimsy.

Imagine if, when a Labour Party conference passed a remit on reproductive rights, or a private member’s bill on assisted dying was drawn, we didn’t flinch. We didn’t throw basic issues of health access and bodily autonomy under the bus for fear of the polls. If progressive MPs and commentators and campaigners all stood together and said “Yeah. We believe every New Zealander deserves modern, accessible medical treatment, unlike this government which has ripped $1.7 billion out of the health system.”

Health is only one example. Imagine if David Shearer hadn’t flinched, when he was asked about the man ban. If he’d said, “It’s 2013. It’s ridiculous there aren’t more women in Parliament. Labour’s looking at ways to change that. Why not go ask John Key why his Cabinet’s such a sausage fest?” Maybe he’d be Prime Minister now.

This is how we improve the political prospects for the left in 2017: being bold. Standing on our principles. Even if people disagree with you, they respect you when you’re consistent and honest. And when you’re running against double-dipping Bill English and Paula Bennett the bully, that can be enough to swing a vote. How many people have you ever heard say “Look, I don’t agree with Winston, but I always know where he stands?”

We don’t narrow our focus. We reach out and show that all our struggles are the same struggle.

This achieves several things. It means our values of solidarity and universalism and community are demonstrated to an immensely broad group of people. Two, it gives people certainty.

Maybe their bugbear is the opening hours of the dental clinic down the road, but they live in a safe rural Tory seat that doesn’t get a lot of attention and certainly won’t warrant a visit from Andrew or Metiria or James. But when they see us standing up for increased health funding, and comprehensive services for marginal communities, and saying “we’re not turning our backs on this group of people, or that small town, or this particular need” they see what kind of people we are. They see our values in action.

A mass movement is not built by finding the largest homogeneous group we can and appealing solely to them. A mass movement is not built by nominating one group – like white working-class men – as the most important people to reach, and expecting women or Māori or queer activists to fall in line for the good of the cause.

Thousands of veterans turned up at Standing Rock to show solidarity with the water protectors. Muslim organisations have donated tens of thousands of bottles of water to Flint, Michigan. And I’ve got to be the only person in this room who hasn’t seen Pride, right? Don’t boo.

That’s how we change the world. By being ourselves. Being the people who believe in solidarity and standing up for the oppressed, even if they don’t look like us or sound like us or need the same things as us.

If we learn the wrong lesson from Trump’s victory – if we accept that the white working class will only support us if we speak exclusively about them and their issues, we are frankly fucked. We’ve sold out the notion of solidarity, which is the heart of our politics.

In 2017, the challenge for the Left is not to find the magic words which will make a mythical racist white working class vote for us. It’s not to silence women or transgender folk or Indigenous people. It’s to stop buying into this divisive bullshit, and show everyone what our values are, and that a better way of doing things is possible.

That’s what people are desperately after.

The prospects for 2017 aren’t looking good. But it could look better.

Victory for Family Planning, but we still need abortion law reform

Family Planning have won again:

Family Planning has maintained its licence to operate an early medical abortion service at its Tauranga clinic.

…However, Ms Edmond commented on how lucky Family Planning was. The decision could easily have gone the other way and women may not have continued to have the choice of having an early medical abortion in their home town. What this latest legal challenge highlights is the need for abortion law reform.

“As a provider of abortion services, Family Planning is keenly aware of the fragility of the current law. We know that groups, like Right to Life, will continue to try to poke holes in our failing and antiquated laws. What happens if next time they are successful?” says Ms Edmond.

The issue is this: Family Planning in Tauranga offers early medical abortion, where the pregnant person takes two pills to induce a miscarriage. It’s safer and far less invasive that a surgical abortion.

But when our abortion law was passed in the 70s, medical abortion didn’t exist. So when regulating the facilities where abortions are done, it was assumed that surgery is involved. Right to Life’s argument was that the law should thus be interpreted so that only clinics with surgical facilities can perform abortions – even when the abortion itself involves no surgery.

They literally want medical practice in 2015 to be dictated by what politicians in 1977 assumed was the way to do things.

If there’s clearer evidence that the anti-abortion lobby are solely motivated by controlling pregnant people’s bodies, I don’t know what it is. They aren’t interested in safety and best medical practice – early medical abortion is safer and does reflect best medical practice. They just want to create delay. Force pregnant people to travel further to access medical care. Tell them to jump through bureaucratic hoops to undergo a safe medical procedure. Make them wait until there aren’t any choices left.

This is why we need abortion law reform. I can’t think of another issue which is literally stuck in the 70s, with a law that’s almost totally irrelevant in the context of 2015, yet constantly met with cries of “Ew, no, don’t bring that up!”

There is nothing radical about saying “this law was passed in 1977, and it didn’t even reflect best practice then. It creates pointless red tape and costs time and taxpayer dollars. Medical science has advanced. Let’s update our law so it’s practical, cost-effective, and fair.”

mean girls duh

The opposition is an extremist, powerless minority. They couldn’t stop prostitution law reform, they couldn’t stop civil unions, they couldn’t stop the repeal of section 59, they couldn’t stop marriage equality. Their greatest recent victory was a temporary injunction against a book which helped it score an international publishing deal.

But politicians are afraid to take a stand. Even though there are many people who would actively campaign for abortion law reform. Right to Life always likes to sneer about the size of organisations like ALRANZ, but there’s also the Greens, whose policy is to decriminalise abortion, and Young Labour who have consistently campaigned for and spoken out on abortion issues.

We do a pretty good rally, too.

Rally for abortion rights at Parliament

A post shared by @msstephaniecatherine on

This is a winnable argument. Most people are shocked to learn abortion is still in the Crimes Act. They don’t realise some DHBs don’t offer abortion services, or that people still fly to Australia for terminations. We can get that message out there – but the people with the big public platforms to do it need to stop flinching and saying “oh no, we can’t mention the A-word!” first.

We’re leaving the field open for the extremists, to take vexatious cases against Family Planning, to drum up baseless anxiety about parental notifications, to keep telling us that pregnant people can’t be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies. And that’s not okay.

And now, an unintentionally pro-choice ditty from Twisted Sister.

The need for abortion law reform

I wrote yesterday about Right to Life’s latest attack on abortion access in New Zealand, so it’s timely to talk about the issue.

Abortion is one of the great untouchable topics in New Zealand politics. In the 80s we could fully decriminalise homosexuality, but we couldn’t decriminalise abortion. In the 2000s we could decriminalise sex work, but we couldn’t decriminalise abortion. We have absolute marriage equality now … and abortion is still the issue that people, especially on the left, freak out about every time.

As Alison McCulloch said in a post I linked to yesterday:

If this were any other issue, if the lives at stake were any other than those of people seeking abortions, action to provide this health service locally and more safely would be swift. But this is abortion. So even though this is about a procedure roughly one in four New Zealand women will undergo in their lifetimes, and even though abortion is something that is absolutely crucial to the autonomy and freedom of at least half of the population, politicians will continue to say everything is fine, judges will continue to make the law and doctors will continue to have control over our bodies, and our lives.

Alison’s book on the history of the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand, Fighting to Choose, is an absolute must-read.

Why is this the line? Why, at the recent Region 4 conference of the Labour Party I attended, did a remit on medical funding for trans people pass with no problems (I’m not going near the subsequent media statements by Labour MPs), and a remit on end of life choice pass with no problems, but a remit on abortion failed?

I can’t speak for the people who voted against it or spoke against it. I can only guess, and probably unfairly, about why abortion gets treated as a special issue.

But these are the facts.

Abortion is a crime in New Zealand. It is only allowed under certain circumstances, on the agreement of two separate physicians. Rape is not grounds for an abortion – it was specifically omitted because our lawmakers assumed pregnant people would just lie about being raped. You know, the way we always do.

Abortion access is very difficult for some people. The Abortion Supervisory Committee has regularly highlighted this. Until very recently, pregnant people seeking abortions who live in Invercargill had to travel to Christchurch, on a specific day of the week, sometimes staying overnight, to have their terminations. Pregnant people from the West Coast still have to do this.

Our abortion laws were written in the late 70s. Medical technology has moved on – that’s why Right to Life hope to be able to force the Family Planning clinic in Tauranga to stop providing safer, easier, cheaper medication abortions. Society has moved on.

I cannot accept that it is impossible to explain this issue clearly and concisely to people – and get a good, constructive response.

In fact, I know it’s not impossible. In 2013 Alison McCulloch did a Prochoice Highway tour across New Zealand, and received overwhelmingly positive reactions. When you have a chat to people and say “Hey, did you know abortion is still a crime in New Zealand law? Did you know pregnant people have to get two different doctors to sign off on their procedure, and have to plead mental illness to get it?” they are surprised. That’s not the New Zealand they know – the liberal hippie paradise which gave women the vote first and kicked out American nuclear subs. Our abortion laws are worse that America’s – that shocks people.

And when you tell them that people still have to raise money to fly to Australia for abortions if they don’t find out they’re pregnant early enough, they’re shocked. Or that abortion providers are still targeted for vandalism and abuse, in this day and age.

The message is simple: abortion is a common, safe medical procedure, governed by laws from the 70s. There’s nothing radical about acknowledging they need to change. There’s nothing scary about letting pregnant people be in control of their own bodies.

Yes, the religious extremists will howl and wail and threaten divine retribution. Just like they did for prostitution law reform. Just like they did for civil unions. Just like they did for marriage equality. But for God’s sake, New Zealand. Maurice Williamson of all people became an international star on the basis of mocking that kind of ridiculous scare-mongering.

They are bullies. They attack us to make us back down. And time and time again, on this issue, we – the progressive left of New Zealand politics – have rewarded their behaviour by shying away from it.

All we need is the courage to say “our abortion laws are outdated. Bringing them in line with modern medical knowledge will save taxpayer dollars and provide huge benefits to New Zealand women.* It’s the right thing to do and you’re right. There are other important issues too. So isn’t it great how quickly we can fix this one and move on?”

This issue isn’t going away. So why not make it a win?

 

 

*Not only women get pregnant.

Rally for abortion rights in Wellington today

I meant to write this post a while ago, but it’s been much more pleasant to have a long weekend playing the Defiance MMO and finishing off a manuscript.

Abortion access in New Zealand (such as it is) is under threat again, with “Right to Life” going to court to argue that the Family Planning clinic in Tauranga shouldn’t be allowed

And you know what, they may, technically, be right. Our abortion laws (such as they are) were passed in 1977. Medical technology has moved on (along with the rest of the world.) So our laws don’t make allowance for medication abortion. It didn’t exist then.

The benefits of medication abortion are huge. It’s far safer (though it bears noting that no one has ever died from complications relating to an abortion in New Zealand. The idea that abortion is horribly dangerous is an antichoice lie.) It’s easier to administer. It doesn’t require surgery.

Of course the antichoice movement hate it. As Alison McCulloch puts it at the ALRANZ blog:

It’s commonsense, and borne out in numerous studies, that the earlier an abortion is performed, the safer it is and – as anyone who’s had to wait for abortion access will know viscerally – the better it is for patients.  So, of course, Right to Life, in its latest effort to chip away at access, wants women to have the wait longer and travel farther. This is harassment no less than the more overt kind encountered on the pavement outside pretty much every abortion provider in this country – something else the ASC said in its report it was concerned about: “We have received reports of instances of verbal abuse and the distribution of offensive material to people entering hospital facilities. … We have addressed this in previous reports and feel it is necessary to highlight again this issue affecting the provision of services throughout New Zealand.”

If you want to take a stand for abortion access and you’re in Wellington tomorrow at noon, come along to the High Court on Molesworth Street.

There’s a Facebook event, but be advised – the New Zealand antichoice movement has form for recording and publishing the names and photographs of people who RSVP on Facebook events for prochoice demonstrations.

Because that’s just how full of love and compassion they are.