Abortion reform: Andrew Little says no deal as Winston Peters springs referendum call

9:07 am on 7 August 2019

The Justice Minister says he's not going to do a deal with New Zealand First to help secure votes for his abortion law reforms.

Andrew Little

Andrew Little says regardless of what NZ First does, he won't be doing a deal. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

Yesterday on Morning Report, NZ First MP Tracey Martin ruled out a referendum on the abortion reform bill which is set down for its first reading tomorrow.

"It hasn't been something that has come up in our caucus at all with regards to this piece of legislation," Ms Martin said.

She insisted none of her colleagues had proposed any changes to Andrew Little's bill that will take abortion out of the Crimes Act, but just hours later - to the surprise of both Ms Martin and Mr Little - Winston Peters revealed the party was considering a binding referendum on the matter.

"No, no, no, there's been talk about [a referendum] for a long long time and as we get to the time we have to vote we're making our position very very clear and we'll enunciate that on Thursday."

Winston Peters

NZ First leader Winston Peters on Tuesday. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

Mr Little said regardless of what NZ First did, he would not be doing a deal with them in exchange for a referendum and would instead rely on support from MPs from all parties to back his changes.

"There is no agreement with me and I suspect the Greens in relation to a referendum for abortion. As I expect there will be lots of SOPs (Supplementary Order Papers) put up in relation to the bill, and an SOP calling for a referendum will be one of them, but it still has to win enough support and that's a matter for further down the track,'' he said.

This isn't the first time Mr Little has been surprised by NZ First at the eleventh hour.

In June last year NZ First dropped its support for the three strikes repeal just hours after Mr Little announced he was taking it to Cabinet for sign-off.

That at least meant he was prepared for yesterday's circus.

"What happened is what happened but previous experience tells me take things one step at a time, and act with good faith and integrity with your governing party colleagues and I've been doing that all along.''

Ms Martin was given a mandate by the party to work with Mr Little to get the legislation as close to NZ First's principles of "safe, legal and rare" abortions.

Tracey Martin

NZ First senior MP Tracey Martin Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

It's understood some of her colleagues saw her dismissal of a referendum when speaking to RNZ as stepping over the mark and something that should have been left to caucus to discuss.

That prompted some MPs to insist on a referendum out of concern that having one on euthanasia and not on abortion would be interpreted as being inconsistent with the party's long-standing position.

Mr Peters rejected suggestions his referendum demand meant his party was trying to hijack Andrew Little's reforms.

"This issue goes before Parliament where every party has expressed a conscience vote, which means the minister could not possibly know the outcome of this, so what you're talking about in terms of him being hijacked is unadulterated drivel."

One person who was not surprised a referendum was on the table was National MP Chris Bishop, who said the writing had been on the wall since 1993.

"I don't know why Andrew Little's so surprised by it, it's been New Zealand First party policy I think since the formation of the New Zealand First party back in 1993."

Mr Little said he had positive feedback from all corners of the House and was optimistic heading into tomorrow's first reading.

National leader Simon Bridges said he will vote against a referendum.

Mr Bridges told Morning Report MPs are elected to make the hard decisions.

But he said members of his party will be divided on the issue.

He said he will not exert control over National Party MPs who spread misinformation about abortion.

"The reality is, one person's misinformation is another person's fact."

He said currently, in the case of pre-20 week abortions the practice and the law haven't married up.

Mr Bridges believes abortion is a health issue but that there should be "significantly stronger safeguards" in the Bill for post-20 week abortions.

He said he doesn't have a clear view on what these are or the significant changes the bill would make to the law post-20 weeks.

"I could profer and try and profer you a scientific view on that, I don't think it would be entirely satisfactory so I'm not going to do that."

But he said he understands there are some cases that this post-20 week abortions need to happen.

He said people who are seeking an abortion face tougher tests now then they would under the new Bill.

"As I say, I don't put myself forward as an expert on these matters, but I do want to ensure that post-20 weeks, abortions in New Zealand remain very rare."

National MP Amy Adams is working with Mr Little to try to drum up support for the bill on her side of the House.

She told Morning Report she doesn't support a referendum.

"If we've learnt anything from Brexit it's that referendum can be very, very bad ways to make complex complicated decisions."

Ms Adams said she respects people who have a view and stands up for it rather than people who want to hide behind a referendum.

Referendums "tend to be run on fear and marketing," she said.

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