12 Aug 2021

Births, deaths, and genders: a quiet bill goes loud

From The House , 6:55 pm on 12 August 2021

This week Parliament completed the second reading of the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Bill

A second reading might not seem significant but the select committee report that this second reading approved dates all the way back to 2018.

The Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relations Registerations Bill (BDMR) has since become bigger and much louder.

The Parliamentary volume button

The Parliamentary volume button Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Moving from quiet to explosive

The BDMR Bill as it is now intended (but not yet collated) is a very different beast from the original. That change is what kept it stuck for so long.

In its 2017 first reading Priyanaca Radhakrishnan described it as a “quieter” bill, something that improves systems and keeps things ticking along.

That category no longer fits. It is becoming the other category of bill she outlined.

“Those that have the power to transform the lives of large groups of people, directly impacting the way we live our lives, the way we're allowed to, for example, express and affirm love, and sometimes transform society and the way society works; to address, perhaps, historical wrongs that have been perpetrated against specific groups. Bills that are explosive and command attention.”

It turns out her speech was incredibly prescient. But at that stage no one saw what would occur - except maybe one public petitioner. 

The backstory of a loudening voice

This may need a little history. 

National’s Nicola Grigg outlined the BDMR Bill’s beginnings during the debate. “The bill, as introduced, included provisions around digital access to information and responded to the review of burial and cremation law by the Law Commission.” 

Definitely a quiet bill. But after that first reading the Bill went to select committee for public feedback and collided with a petition that had arrived earlier.

Allyson Hamblett’s petition wanted Parliament “to enable adults with intersex conditions and trans and other gender diverse adults to change the sex details on any official documentation to male, female or indeterminate based solely on the individual's self-identification, without any requirement for medical treatment and without the need to resort to a court process.”

The committee had acknowledged that birth certificate gender corrections were an issue that needed addressing. They didn’t however have any immediate solutions.

When the BDMR Bill appeared Allyson Hamblett jogged the committee’s attention with a submission on the Bill and then an effectively pointed response to their report on her earlier petition.

Her response was along the lines of ‘you said this was a problem waiting for a bill to piggy-back on - have you noticed the bill you are working on would be ideal?’ 

The committee agreed.

Labour MP Jan Tinetti in the House 21 Feb 2018

Labour MP Jan Tinetti in the House Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The problem and the fix

Jan Tinetti is the Minister of Internal Affairs (which handles such births, deaths etc). She outlined what needed changing and her plan to change it. 

“...our current law requires transgender and intersex New Zealanders to undergo a complex, intimidating, and often inaccessible process based on the provision of medical evidence to amend the sex on their birth certificate. A survey in 2019 found that 83 percent of this community did not have the correct gender represented on their birth certificate...

“What we are proposing here, ...is removing what are, frankly, unnecessary barriers for a small but important group of New Zealanders to identify their gender on their birth certificate. This isn't something that has been dreamt up overnight. This has been part of a substantial policy process to do what this government knows is the right thing to do for our transgender, intersex, and non-binary communities. 

“I don't believe that these changes will impact, impinge, or threaten the rights of any other New Zealanders, but they will increase the rights of some vulnerable members of our community who deserve the dignity and right to be able to self-identify their gender on their birth certificate without financial, medical, or legal barriers.

“We are also not alone in making these changes. Since 2012, 15 other countries have adopted a self-identification process, as well as the Australian states of Tasmania and Victoria. There has been no substantial evidence found of any serious or unmanageable consequences of introducing a self-identification process. 

“However, if any unintended consequences do arise, we have built in a statutory review of the self-identification provisions five years after the commencement of this bill, as per the 2018 select committee's recommendations.”

A louder bill goes quiet

So why has it taken three years to turn a desire for change into a reality? 

Possibly one difficulty was finding an efficient but reliable way to replace the previously ponderous one. Births, deaths, marriages and relationships data might seem trivial but needs to be rock solid. It’s the basis of passports for example.

Another difficulty was that changing the BDMR bill from a quieter one to a loud and transformative one all happened after the committee had already heard submissions on it. 

National Party MP Barbara Kuriger noted this in the debate. 

“The select committee at that stage made substantial amendments, including an allowance for individuals to change the sex on their birth certificate via an administrative process based on self-identification. The change occurred after the public submissions had closed and following the presentation of a petition with 23 [sic] signatories.”

Actually the petition had 53 signatories, but that is not particularly significant. Mountains could be moved by a petition with a solitary name on it - it’s the idea that counts.

Also, committees often change bills as a result of feedback, but Barbara Kuriger is correct;  this change was well wide of the original scope of the bill and no-one had been asked for feedback on this sort of change.

You may have noticed that Parliament does take public feedback and input pretty seriously.

It’s also been suggested that the ideas for the amended bill were just too loud for the appetite of coalition partner New Zealand First. I haven’t seen that confirmed but coalitions can make explosive legislation harder to realise. 

National MP Barbara Kuriger in the House.

National MP Barbara Kuriger in the House. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

A way forward - the two pronged attack

As a result of all of that history this week’s progress was a bit more complicated than just a second reading approving the committee’s changes and then the BDMR Bill ploughing on to the committee stage. 

Yes, the underlying Bill will now go to the Committee of the Whole House for a committee stage, but the actual stage won’t happen quite yet. 

It will have to wait for a few months until a new section catches up with it and can be added in at the committee stage. 

The minister, Jan Tinetti has also tabled a draft amendment to the Bill called a Supplementary Order Paper (an SOP is an amendment offered at the committee stage).

It’s not unusual for the government to offer sometimes quite substantial SOPs on its own bills at the committee stage. It is less usual to do what Jan Tinetti is doing with this one. 

The second prong - a committee inquiry

That draft SOP is being sent to the Governance and Administration Committee for public feedback. 

The SOP is not a bill though so the usual committee response doesn’t apply. Instead the minister is asking the committee to push another one of its buttons and launch an inquiry to consider the SOP and call for submissions on just that part of the Bill. 

Labour MP Tangi Utikere is the deputy chair of the committee.

“I am looking forward to the select committee availing itself of its inquiry powers to consider the draft SOP. I know that is a committee that is collegial. It works really hard, and I look forward to the public submissions and that process being open to allow members of our community to submit, and we look forward to hearing from them. 

“But I do expect to hear from members of our Rainbow community. I expect to hear from members of our Māori, Pasifika, new migrant community, and also other communities in Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm delighted that the second reading has come and that this draft Supplementary Order Paper 59 in the Minister's name will be referred to the select committee.”

National Party MP Nicola Grigg is her party’s spokesperson for women. She is also on the committee. 

“It is imperative the public, the experts, the clinicians, and trans New Zealanders can all have the opportunity to have a say and feed into this legislation. Organisations, groups, and  individuals who have concerns about the impact of sex self-ID have not had the opportunity to contribute and be a part of the democratic process. It is now time for their voice to be heard. It has been a messy process, but I look forward to the select committee consideration of the proposed changes and to seeing if we in this House can produce a high-quality piece of legislation for all women.” 

Green MP Elizabeth Kerekere speaks in the debate on Conversion Practices

Green MP Elizabeth Kerekere speaks in the debate on Conversion Practices Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

MPs offer lessons, wisdom and a plea

In her debate speech Green MP Elizabeth Kerekere took some lessons from the progress on this issue. 

“I wonder what we can learn from all of this. Number one: all the hard work is worth it. Every hui, every submission, every petition—it is worth it. All the collaboration, the checking of each other's work, making sure we have consistent language, the tiredness—it is worth it. 

“Number two: we have allies who will help us and who will stick their necks out for us, in the community and in this House. Never pre-judge somebody based on their political affiliations. We do not know what is happening in their lives, we do not know what is happening in their heart.” 

And Labour MP Deborah Russell reflected on some wisdom she was gifted as a newish MP by Labour’s Damien O’Connor. 

“He said in this House, we don't legislate for the ordinary case; we legislate for the margins. And tonight we are here legislating for the marginalised to try to help make the world a better place for people who have been pushed to the margins of our society. 

“I've reflected on that for a long time, that legislating for the margins, realising that our job here as parliamentarians is to protect the vulnerable, is to support those who need extra help, is to support people in unusual circumstances who just wish to lead ordinary lives. That is what we hope to enable them to do.

“I know that some of the people listening in tonight won't understand what it's all about. They just don't get it. You know, what's the problem with birth certificates and sex and official documents and the like? And, you know, that's a pretty easy position for someone who is cisgender to take, for someone who just exists in the body they were born with and no worries about it. 

“But actually those of us who are cisgender don't need to understand. All we need to understand is that our trans whānau would like us to make this change to make their lives better. So that is what we are about. …

“I urge those who submit to the select committee to remember to treat this process with care and respect. Why? Because we are talking about the marginalised and we should have more care and more respect when that is what we are doing.”