Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Monstrous Government for Women

The biggest event in politics this week just gone has surely been the emerging National scandal surrounding the government's handling of the recent imbroglio surrounding a certain Malaysian diplomatic staffer.

In it, we saw the reprehensible spectacle of a gaggle of greying politicians and senior bureaucrats initially falling over themselves to avoid culpability for the string of events that had lead to a Kiwi victim's right to efficient, local justice being abjured due to either "miscommunication" or more sinister diplomatic considerations involving our eighth largest trading partner.

This was a failing that was only compounded when the relevant Minister responsible's apparent first apology was not to the victim - and McCully's own countryman and paymaster ... y'know, the person he's supposed to be serving as a Minister - but rather to the Prime Minister, assumedly for the cardinal sin of creating a political sideshow in an election year.

I am certainly not alone amidst commentators casting aspersions in the direction of the government for this; but would suggest that this government's issues with failing to properly support Kiwi women go far further and deeper than one sorry diplomatic and legal snafu.

Its handling of this one attempted rape case has quite rightly raised questions in the last week; but vital services like Rape Crisis and the Women's Refuge have been underfunded and closing their doors or heading to central government replete with begging bowls and lodging appeals through the media for funding for months now.

Let's be clear about this. Thanks to National, back in 2012, we literally had a situation wherein an absolutely essential service for Wellington women (in the form of Rape Crisis) was being kept alive and afloat by donations from a pizza company trying desperately to fix its PR after using an incident of sexual assault as a marketing ploy. (Just in case there's any ambiguity here, for the purposes of this piece, I'm slightly more interested in castigating National for creating a situation wherein Hell's intervention was necessary, than I am in vituperating *their* egregious lapse) And yet the Young Nats have the audacity and the gall to try and claim "women's rights" as a National Party cause.

If anything, I'd say that this government's attitude toward victims of abuse and sexual assault is far more strongly evinced by its callous series of decisions to underfund vital services like those above and stop collecting stats on domestic violence, rather than its sudden decision to look like it's attempting to move mountains when all eyes are upon it over this latest scandal.

We can but hope that the logical connection between attempting to bring one alleged attempted rapist to trial here in NZ; and the rightness of supporting other survivors whose personal cases *haven't* made the leap to being election year news circuses is not too long a bow for National's Cabinet to draw.

Of course, given the prominence and salience of women within the National Party's own Caucus and Cabinet, it is perhaps not surprising that the government has not always done the best job of keeping issues most strongly relevant to women at the front of the political (and Budget) agenda. While crude quantitative rubrics for female representation are ultimately an inferior measurement for how female-friendly a party is as compared to, say, its policy and legislative record; the number of females a party puts forward to represent it also tells us a few things about that party's organizational culture and values.

At present, of National's 59 MPs, 15 are female (just over 25%). Of their Ministers in Cabinet, it's six out of twenty (30%); and eight out of twenty five Ministers all up (32%). (And including the government's 3 support party ministers, it comes to nine out of 28 and also about 32%) It's also interesting to note that gender balance within National's Caucus has actually gone slightly *backwards* from where it was under the "chauvinist" Don Brash in 2005. It's certainly interesting to speculate about the nature of a party's interior culture if it's habitually producing gender disparities in its representation such as these.

Of course, it's not like the government's problem is exclusively a National one. If you look at the National Party's support partners, the problem only gets worse. Of the five seats held by the government's support parties, only one is actually occupied by a female ... outgoing Maori Party MP, Tariana Turia.

Now, for those of you in the audience who may think that the single female MP of a party theoretically dedicated to representing and supporting a marginalized people such as our first nations might be a friend and ally of the feminist movement ... well just check out what she had to say on abortion. The easy availability of pregnancy-termination for young Maori is "an excessive focus on controlling our fertility" (I'm assuming by the state); while a teen pregnancy rate for the same demographic five times that of non-Maori is something that apparently cannot be construed as a potentially negative issue; and a woman's fertility is described as a "precious gift" that is "not meant to be the responsibility of one person, alone".

If she got any more overtly pro-life, she'd be able to hand out a latter-day Cross of German Motherhood.

Looking ahead to September 21st later this year, I'm not entirely sure that the problem's going to resolve itself, either. National hasn't released its List yet, so there's very little point playing female fantasy football with its Caucus arrangements - but in terms of support partners, the Maori Party looks likely to either shrink down to a port-a-loo sized Caucus of one (male), or possibly be wiped out entirely depending upon how Waiariki goes. ACT remains the Party of Rich White Men by both policy and politician; while possibly the greatest political bogey-man faced by the cause of Kiwi women is probably the specter-cum-spectacle of Colin Craig entering into Parliament.

If his many and various pronouncements about female promiscuity, how he'd resign as an electorate MP rather than vote in favour of on-demand abortion; or the word of Russel Norman about what Craig thinks the place of women is, aren't enough evidence for you ...

... then perhaps consider the fact that Colin Craig is apparently his party's Spokesman for Women's Affairs (a distinction he shares with Australian Minister for Women's Affairs, Tony Abbott); and his stated belief that "gender equality is one of those concepts that's mostly on paper. I'm not sure that this is something that's a government thing". I suppose it takes a certain sort of person to immediately ask the question "where are the blokes?" when questions as to how we move to secure greater gender equality and egalitarianism are raised.

So what can we do about it?

Well, on September 20th, as you're no doubt almost tired of being reminded by now, you've got a choice.

You can support one of the parties or candidates who've contributed to a government which apparently views $80 million dollars for a coinage-revamp as apparently being a greater spending priority than $30,000 to keep Christchurch's SafeCare rape crisis service open; and which evidently doesn't see anything particularly wrong or hypocritical in showing off Paula Bennett as an example of the sort of transformative support for women which the welfare system can deliver ... while simultaneously cutting and rolling back for the *next* generation of women who need them exactly the same support mechanisms she herself relied upon.

Or, you can do something different.

You can support parties and candidates which have proven track-records of fostering pro-female policies; and inclusive, egalitarian organizational cultures.

If you're not quite sure where to start, this graphic and accompanying BFM interview might be helpful.

In terms of the key non-government players of this election, each of Labour, The Greens, NZ First, and Internet-MANA can make a strong appeal for your vote. Labour's Caucus has always played host to strong female and female-friendly MPs and was prepared to undertake controversial measures to attempt to ensure greater gender equity therein, while Young Labour additionally deserves recognition for trying to get their parent party to take a stronger stance on abortion.

The Greens' commitment to gender equity hardly requires elaboration, and if you like the idea of achieving parity in representation via internal party rules that can be invoked to secure a 1:1 gender balance in Caucus and a gender-split co-leader position ... then I guess you'll like The Greens. There's certainly much to appreciate in the records of their eight female MPs (from a Caucus of 14, so 57%). Personally, I'm somewhat more wildly excited about their absolutely awesome policy of FINALLY decriminalizing abortion.

As applies my own beloved New Zealand First, I can genuinely state that I'm proud to belong to a Party with near-parity within our Caucus (3/7 MPs, or 43%; and it would be a 50-50 4/8 split if Brendan Horan had resigned his seat upon leaving the Party, allowing next-on-the-List Helen Mulford to come in), and with an active culture of supporting women within positions of power and influence within the Party (at last count including the Deputy Leader, Party President, something like half the Party executive, and numerous Chairpersons and other officeholders). I'm particularly proud of this, because unlike either Labour or the Greens (who use targets and quotas), we've managed to achieve this purely through organizational culture and promoting from our own recognized female talent pool.

Meanwhile, MANA has its whole "Wahine Toa" thing going on (and will likely acquire some gender diversity in its Caucus with the likely election of Annette Sykes later this year); while as for the Internet Party ... well, I think I'll let Miriam speak for herself.

In any case, while this article has focused upon how our MPs represent and legislate for Kiwi women; that doesn't mean its relevance is only *for* Kiwi women. We all have a vote and a say on the 20th of September, and regardless of what gender or orientation you identify with, your vote counts equally when it comes to producing progressive change.

So, whether male, female, intersex, transgender, or just plain pissed off ... please use it wisely to support parties and candidates that are going to help make the situation for women in this country better. Not worse.

Or you might wind up being represented by a government replete with MPs who eschew feminism as unnecessary in favour of instead "[working] with people in a sort of a relational, discussion way."

This piece is dedicated to Pareen; for making a Feminist of me, by changing the way I viewed the world.

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