Week in Politics: Parliament gives abortion law reform a big tick

4:30 pm on 9 August 2019

By Peter Wilson

Analysis - Abortion law reform is pretty much done and dusted.

The 94-23 vote in favour of the bill on its first reading could shift around a bit but a majority that strong won't be reversed as it goes through its second and third readings. The gay marriage bill was much closer on its first reading and became law without a hitch.

Andrew Little

Justice Minister Andrew Little released the proposed abortion reform bill which has been widely supported through its first reading. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

The special select committee set up to deal with the bill will no doubt receive thousands of submissions opposing it. There may be some tweaks before it is returned to Parliament, but the core provisions agreed between Labour and NZ First, and now supported by Parliament at the first reading, are very unlikely to be changed.

New Zealand First can push as much as it wants for a referendum but there's no mood for that within the other parties. It's been a bizarre business and NZ First's last-minute manoeuvre blindsided MP Tracey Martin who had spent weeks carefully negotiating the bill with Justice Minister Andrew Little.

Winston Peters said it had always been NZ First's position to call for referenda on important issues. That's true, but why did it come up just days before the first reading? Stuff reported MPs were getting grief from party members upset because NZ First insisted on a referendum on the euthanasia bill but wasn't doing the same on abortion law changes.

Winston Peters

Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

NZ First MPs voted in favour of the bill and will presumably put up an amendment during its committee stage which states it can only become law after being approved by voters at a referendum. It will almost certainly fail, and the party's MPs can decide whether to abstain on future votes.

MPs from other parties who have commented on the situation felt it was up to elected representatives to make the call through conscience votes. National's Amy Adams told RNZ it would be a bad idea to hold a referendum on an issue which would generate divisive campaigns with emotionally-charged debates probably based on misinformation. If anyone doubted it could get messy, she said, just remember Brexit.

Mr Peters has always argued that it's better to allow voters rather than a bunch of temporarily employed MPs to make the big decisions. It's also a convenient way of avoiding the wrath of a section of the voters when a party has to come down on one side or the other.

The week began with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's post-cabinet press conference when she was asked what action the government was taking in response to the Chinese Consulate in Auckland involving itself in university demonstrations and confrontations over protests in Hong Kong against the extradition to China bill.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The consulate was way out of line when it issued a statement condemning any activity that demonised China and Hong Kong officials.

Ms Ardern didn't directly answer, instead turning the discussion into one about the possibility of unspecified countries interfering with New Zealand's electoral process.

On Tuesday the situation had changed, and the prime minister told reporters MFAT officials had raised concerns with the Chinese Embassy.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made its expectations (known) with the Chinese representation in New Zealand that we will uphold and maintain our freedom of expression," she said.

In other words, stay out of our business.

Parliament was intrigued by Julie Anne Genter's letter to Transport Minister Phil Twyford, which she is refusing to release. Ms Genter, a Green MP and associate transport minister, wrote to Mr Twyford about Wellington's $6.4 billion transport package known as Let's Get Wellington Moving (LGWM).

Julie Anne Genter.

Julie Anne Genter Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

National's Chris Bishop believes Ms Genter convinced Mr Twyford to push back the proposal for a second Mt Victoria tunnel for at least a decade. The tunnel gridlock is a sore point in the capital.

Ms Genter is defending her refusal to release the letter on the grounds that it was part of a "free and frank" discussion between ministers. National has asked the Ombudsman to decide whether it should be released.

This appears to be linked to a curious report published by the Dominion Post on Friday which said mayor Justin Lester had told councillors Ms Genter and another Green MP had threatened to resign if a watered-down version of LGWM was not accepted.

The mayor is said to have implied the support agreement between Labour and the Greens could be at risk.

The report said councillor Simon Woolf had reaffirmed his claims that mayor Lester said Ms Genter had threatened to resign, and councillor Diane Calvert confirmed he said the Greens would withdraw from the support agreement. Mr Lester denies making those claims.

This could become seriously embarrassing, which is why Mr Bishop is so anxious to get his hands on the letter.

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National MP Chris Bishop Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

And, finally, former Treasury secretary Gabriel Makhlouf has at last admitted he could have done a better job of handling the Budget information leak which he wrongly described as hacking. It caused an uproar and soon afterwards Mr Makhlouf left to take up a position as head of Ireland's Central Bank which he is due to start in September.

The controversy and the inquiry into it caused concern in Ireland and opposition parties wanted the appointment put on hold.

In a letter to Ireland's finance minister, released by the Irish government, Mr Makhlouf said he accepted the inquiry's findings.

Gabriel Makhlouf, Secretary of the Treasury. Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update 2017.

Gabriel Makhlouf Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

"In hindsight, I accept that I could have described the incident more clearly and with a different emphasis," he said.

That could be described as something of an understatement.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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