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Thursday 09 April 2009


Labour: Committed to human rights and dignity

Posted in: Features
By Jay Bennie - 27th October 2008

This is the fourth in a series of brief interviews with representatives of political parties conducted in the lead up to the November 8th General Election. They are being presented in the order in which they were able to be arranged and conducted. The first was United Future's Peter Dunne, followed by NZ First's Doug Woolerton and Act's Rodney Hide

Jay Bennie is the interviewer and in the chair this time is Labour's Maryan Street


Maryan-Street_3.jpg
Labour's Maryan Street
Although Maryan Street got a bit of a slagging in GayNZ.com's Forum for her apparently 'dehumanised' presentation at the Auckland Lesbian Business Association forum a couple of weeks back, in our phone interview she seems the opposite, chatting, laughing, thinking her way through the conversation, and reminiscing at length about Labour’s history on glbt issues.

Street, the person chosen by Rainbow Labour to front up for this series of pre-election interviews, reminisces over her two decades with Labour, including a stint as party president. "This is very personal for me, as well as being political. The Labour Party changed its constitution in the time since I became a member and explicitly included sexual orientation as a human rights item on which grounds people must not be discriminated against... that was a really important thing, that the party was committed enough to human rights, dignity, and the freedom for people to be who there are, to write it into the constitution."

It was the campaign for Homosexual Law reform in the mid 80s that drew Street, and many other glbt people, into politics. And although the law was of specific benefit to gay men, many lesbians also pitched into the fray. "Warren Lindberg got me in tow as a young lesbian teacher, to go and lobby Judy Keal on the Homosexual Law Reform Bill in 1985. And that was a really important galvanizing moment for me. And so, lobbying an MP and seeing her change her mind, and 'get it' in a flash, as to why this was an important issue and the Labour Party ought to be committed to it, was really important.

"As Labour Party President, "it was really important that I was able to be ‘out’ in that position. This is 1993 we’re talking about now, seven years on from the passage of the Bill and all of the ghastly things that happened in New Zealand society and the terrible things that were said in the course of that debate. For me it was really important to be able to take on a position as leader of one of the two major political parties in the country, and be absolutely out and proud. It was terribly important, too, not only from an assertive, political point of view – I'm gay and I'm here in this position' – but it was really important as a way of neutralising what my opponents considered to be one of their weapons against me. So that was a lesson for me in political strength as well.

Although Labour had started to broaden its membership and focus to encompass minority groups and contemporary social issues, its grass roots support was still the average kiwi worker, who might have raised an eyebrow when it became known the boss was a dyke? "I never at any stage received anything other than fulsome support from Labour Party members. And they were kind of proud of me, which was nice. Here I was, and I was out, and they were pleased to be able to point to me as an example of the principles and the practice of the Labour Party. I loved them for it. They were very good to me, and they still are. They have now seen numbers of gay MPs coming through the Labour Party, and there’s been a lot of progress since."

“From there, the last two Labour Governments have been really progressive about our LGBTI issues. And I think if you have a look at the things that we’ve done, just in terms of law [changes], I think the record stands on its own. There was the Property Relationships Act in 2001, and that was introduced to ensure there was equal division of property in the event of a relationship break-up – and that the same law applied to same-sex couples, as for married and also de facto. The Sentencing Act the next year that allowed for hate motivation to be considered as an aggravating factor… then next came the Clean Slate legislation, which of course was important to gay men in taking out pre-1986 offences for consensual sexual activity that wasn’t previously legal.”

Street has warmed to her subject and it's hard to get a word in edgeways as she proudly reels off her party’s glbt-friendly initiatives. “There’s the Care of Children Act and of course the Civil Unions Act, which we’re very proud of, and remain proud of, and for me was a significant one, since all the others had happened before I got into Parliament. For me, the Civil Union Act was about human rights and dignity as much as anything else. It was about our communities being treated equally before the law. And out of that, came the Statutory References Act the next year in ’05, which amended 180 laws, to ensure that married and civil unionized couples were treated the same before the law. And to me, that’s always been the issue – equal treatment.”

Street is careful to list initiatives which, whilst not necessarily Parliamentary, still happened because of the changing mood of Parliament which she believes Labour has spearheaded. “There have been some significant policy things that have happened as well, not just legal things, but the Human Rights Commission and its work on transgender people I think has been hugely significant and I think a world first. We’ve got policy advice sitting in the Ministry of Social Development on LGBTI issues. We’ve got ongoing staff training in the defence force, in police, in customs, covering homophobia awareness. Of course, the police have got their Diversity Liaison Officers – that’s been a policy move, not a legislative one. Sexuality education included in the school curriculum – that’s been good.”

But the work towards equality and fair treatment in law isn’t over yet... what do Street and her party see as important objectives for the future? She draws a deep breath...

“I’m pleased that [gay Cabinet minister] Chris [Carter] has done recently as Minister of Education, is to bring in support resources for anti-bullying measures in schools. That’s terribly important, and is one of the areas that we needed to move on next. There are lots of kids – and I remember teaching them myself – who are bullied by other kids because they are gay, or they are wrestling with being gay, or they seem to be different from the other kids. That’s an area where we’ve got to continue to make improvements. That’s not about law changes, but that’s about awareness and education and support for both gay teachers and gay students in schools.

“I think we need to look also at how we deliver services to the LGBTI communities, through government departments, and public services and so on, and even through local government. Are there things that our communities are not getting that they should be? Is there a new response that’s needed? For example the growing HIV infection numbers, where we thought that this was an argument that was over – an issue that was dealt with years ago, and yet we’re now seeing increasing HIV+ diagnoses.”

“There are some other matters left unattended, or others that are perceived to be problematic around the relationship law reform. They tend to be issues around wills, adoption… actually, we’ve just improved the wills legislation… but I think the status of parents is an issue that the Law Commission has reported on. And we need to make sure we are up-to-date and reflecting our communities.

Where does Labour see LGBT people heading in the future? “I think our vision for the queer communities is to have greater participation, visibility and acceptance in every aspect of public and community life, so that we become valued for who we are, and valued for our contribution to our communities. Being recognised as making a contribution and being gay, or making a contribution because we’re gay, making a particular contribution because we’re gay… I think that acceptance and recognition and valuing of people is where our vision takes us. That we are an integral part of every community and we’re able to be who we are fully.”

As in the past several general elections, Labour is fielding the largest number of openly glbt candidates, and has lost a couple. “Well of course during this term we’ve lost Georgina, and that is a loss to all of us. She brought the most extraordinary contribution as the first transgender MP in the world. She has been an extraordinary role model and contributor.

"And we're losing Tim Barnett as well, because he’s retiring. He was the most passionate advocate for the Rainbow community.

"So, who have we got? We've got Chris Carter, senior front bencher, Minister of Education, he has experience and longevity as an MP, plus he’s also doing a good job as the Minister of Education, as he has done in the Conservation portfolio that he used to have.

"There's me, as the first openly-lesbian MP.* I'm more recently in Parliament, and very recently in cabinet. The party it seems has put me high up on the list, so they're obviously hoping I will contribute more, so I'm looking forward to doing that. My areas of interest and expertise particularly are health, housing, industrial relations, Treaty settlements, those sorts of areas. Since coming into Parliament, Commerce as well, and Education… and of course I have Associate Tertiary Education, Associate Economic Development as well as Housing and ACC portfolios. Good experience, and I've obviously been around the political traps for a long time.

"Then we have Charles Chauvel. Incredibly substantial legal experience, hugely quick mind, very capable. He joined the Labour Party when he was 16, in fact, and he went on the carve out a very successful legal career for himself and became a partner at a very young age. So he’s always been recognised as being hugely able, and works to Michael Cullen as Attorney General with some special tasks there, and is Chairing the Finance and Expense Committee in parliament, which is probably the most high-powered select committee in parliament. He came in mid-term.

“Most recently of course, we’ve been joined by Louisa Wall – it’s lovely to have another lesbian in the caucus. And she comes out of a health research and administration background, with a master’s degree, and of course is probably best known for her contribution to the Silver Ferns and the Black Ferns, so played international netball and rugby for us, in those teams. So she’s got Maori, health, sports backgrounds and networks that she brings, as well as her lesbian connections.

Grant Robertson in Wellington Central, is a candidate for the first time with a very significant background in policy. He has worked in the Prime Minister’s office in the past on policy areas. A very thoughtful, very intelligent chap, been working for Otago University and coordinating research contracts in more recent times. So he should be in – I’m sure he’ll win that seat. Stephen Franks is running against him in Wellington Central, under the platform of cutting the public service, so I don’t see how that’s going to win him any brownie points.

“In addition, we’ve got Jills Angus-Burney, who is a lawyer with the Engineer’s Union, and she’s running in Rangatiki, and we have Farida Sultana, our first woman of colour lesbian Muslim. So she has worked for a long time in ethnic communities, particularly on areas of domestic violence and family violence. And she’s worked with ethnic communities assisting women who come from a whole range of Eastern European, Asian, African, Indian and other origins in the area of family violence. So she brings those skills. She’s on the list, she’s not running in a constituency.

“I think that’s everyone... a reasonably wide range of skills and experience that we bring collectively I think.”

We decide Street has indeed accounted for everyone, and it’s only later that GayNZ.com realises Jordan Carter was accidentally missed out. Carter works in the IT industry and has been active in the Labour Party since 1998. He was particularly to the fore in the campaign for Civil Unions.

We close the interview asking Street to name a glbt person she has found admirable or inspiring. “I find this one really hard, because I fluctuate between close friends who I love, which is easy, to the sort of Harvey Milk character, out there in the political arena, somewhere else far away. And so I find it quite difficult to pick somebody out.

“I find lesbians and gays who put themselves up over the parapet of public life in one way or another inspirational. And I suppose that for me started with Warren Lindberg. So he’d be one of my favourite inspirational characters. He is also a very dear friend. But he’s somebody I’ve found inspirational, strong, clever, astute, dedicated.

"And the other person whom I've admired hugely has been Georgina [Beyer]... because she took little Carterton by storm... despite every pundit’s prediction she got elected mayor of Carterton, and then went on to be elected in the general electorate. She’s somebody I admire as well.”


*[Editor's note: Although Marilyn Waring was technically outed in the 1980s as a lesbian, during her term as a National MP, she did not openly confirm her sexuality until after leaving Parliament.]

Next up: The Greens' Kevin Hague, followed by The Progressives' Jim Anderton.

Jay Bennie - 27th October 2008