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The great abortion beat-up

Grant Robertson has taken a leaf from John Key’s playbook.
Graham Adams
Contributing Writer
July 11th, 2022

OPINION: John Key was often accused of using the “dead cat” strategy when he was coming under intense pressure as Prime Minister. The ruse he used to successfully distract opponents’ attention was likened to throwing a dead cat onto the dining-room table. Suddenly, an uncomfortable conversation would be abandoned as everyone shouted: “Look! There’s a dead cat on the table!”

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson has shown recently that he is every bit as adept as Key at the dead-cat maneuver as his government comes under sustained fire over its many failures.

They include, but are not limited to: the spiraling cost of living, a broken health system, insanely expensive housing, and crimped building supplies.

In the wake of the US Supreme Court rejecting Roe v Wade, Robertson appeared intent on turning a constitutional verdict made overseas — which didn’t ban abortion but returned the decision to individual states to decide democratically — into a live issue here.

And so far Robertson has had some success in his campaign to sow doubts about Luxon’s pledge to not change the law on abortion.

A fortnight ago, he recommended to AM's Melissa Chan-Green that ”New Zealanders need to ask themselves what Christopher Luxon’s stance on abortion actually is… Previously he's said that abortion is akin to murder.”

He also accused Luxon of “spinning” his position.

He has got traction, of course, mainly because the mainstream media have seemed very keen to lend him a helping hand in keeping the issue alive.

Last week, journalist Patrick Gower, for instance, told Newshub Nation that he thought Luxon should be losing sleep over the abortion debate and the effect it might have on his electoral chances next year.

“The worst possible thing [for the female centre voter] you can have is a leader that wants to control their bodies or criminalise them,” Gower opined gravely. “It is terrible for Christopher Luxon. If I was him, I would lie awake at night worrying about it.”

Sleepless nights might perhaps make some scrap of sense if Luxon — and Gower — had never heard of Bill English. A conservative Catholic whose views on abortion are very much like Luxon’s, English won 44 per cent of the nation’s party vote in 2017 compared to Ardern’s 36 per cent.

And English was campaigning on behalf of a tired government that had spent nine years in power, and the fact he was opposed to abortion and assisted dying didn’t seem to dent his popularity at all. And this was at a time the divisive assisted dying debate was raging after David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill had been introduced to Parliament in June that year.

So, despite the question of assisted dying being very much a live issue at the 2017 election, with more than 60 per cent of voters reliably supporting a law change, the religious conservative English, who was clear in his opposition to euthanasia, cleaned up the party vote.

But now we have been asked to believe that an issue Luxon agrees is “settled” has suddenly become a live and menacing problem for the election in 2023.

It doesn’t seem to matter to Gower — or many other journalists — that Luxon has repeatedly told media interviewers that he will not tamper with the law passed in 2020 that shifted abortion from the Crimes Act to become purely a health issue.

Nor, presumably, does it matter that National would undoubtedly need Act’s support to form a government and David Seymour — who is a strong advocate of personal freedom and abortion rights — would not agree to any change to the law in the extremely unlikely event one was proposed.

Even telling the truth doesn’t always seem to matter to journalists either. Gower told Newshub Nation: “The guy voted to keep abortion criminalised, that’s the end of it.”

In fact, Luxon wasn’t even an MP when the abortion law was passed in 2020. The panel’s host, Simon Shepherd, didn’t feel the need to correct Gower’s manifestly untrue statement either.

Fortunately for Luxon and National, it is not an entirely straightforward case for Labour to prosecute. There is the inconvenient fact that its powerful Minister of Foreign Affairs and Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta, voted against the abortion reforms in 2020 at both the second and third readings.

Yet she tweeted after the Roe v Wade decision: "The US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade is draconian and does not support the right of women to choice [sic]. How can this happen?”

Asked why her tweet disapproved of the decision after she had shown herself to be opposed to abortion, she explained: "My tweet represents the view of the government.”

In short, we have a senior Cabinet minister who didn’t initially have the courage of her convictions to state a personal view — or the good sense to stay quiet.

Mahuta added, “I accept the democratic outcome of that vote. You will not see me campaigning to reverse the outcome of that particular vote.”

This is exactly Luxon’s position. And if we are encouraged not to believe Luxon, why should we believe her?

We should not forget that Mahuta has long harboured ambitions to lead the Labour Party. She contested the leadership in 2014, and until Andrew Little’s reshuffle in 2015 was ranked number four in Labour’s caucus.

If anything, she is much more powerful now — and some commentators believe even Ardern herself fears her. Former Labour Cabinet minister Michael Bassett has referred to Mahuta holding a “Rasputin-like grip over Jacinda, who seems permanently in thrall to anything promoting Maori that Nanaia comes up with”.

Perhaps, in that case, journalists should consider Mahuta’s opposition to abortion just as carefully as Luxon’s?

Indeed, some might say her handling of Three Waters shows she is less trustworthy than Luxon is ever likely to be, and if Ardern steps down before the next election who knows who will become leader? After all, Mahuta seems to hold extraordinary sway over Labour’s MPs.

Labour also has the problem of having endorsed Efeso Collins as the party’s candidate for the Auckland mayoralty.

Collins, like Luxon, is a socially conservative politician. The media, however, conveniently avoids discussing the religious beliefs held by the Labour mayoral candidate as much as it can.
It’s true that Collins — unlike Luxon if he becomes Prime Minister — can have no direct influence over the laws that Parliament makes but now that Roe v Wade has been overturned, many will think that assessing the position every politician takes on the issue to be more vitally important than ever.

And being Auckland’s mayor is a very prominent role. In fact, some rate the city’s mayoralty as the second-most important job in New Zealand politics.

As it happens, Collins has been endorsed not only by Labour but also by the Greens.

The two parties’ endorsement can only mean they are obviously happy to overlook Collins’ religious conservatism — and what we can only assume (in the absence of a firm statement otherwise) are the views he holds on abortion.

Certainly, when The Spinoff’s Toby Manhire asked in January what his position on abortion was, he lacked the forthrightness that Luxon has exhibited in repeating clearly that he is “pro-life”.

Manhire recorded Collins’ initial response as “the world could use fewer men pontificating on the subject”, before he circled around “without quite answering the question”.

Evidently aware that avoiding offering a straight answer would appear inadequate and evasive, Collins later messaged Manhire “to clarify [his response]”.

“Rather than focusing on labels,” Collins wrote, “it’s my position that I won’t get in the way of women and people who are pregnant making their own, deeply personal decisions. I too am on a journey of understanding and empathy and always open to listening to people’s diverse experiences and beliefs.”

His Wikipedia page records: “Although [Collins] has spoken out on abortion and same sex marriage, he now respects people for their decisions.”

In short, reading between the lines, there doesn’t appear to be the width of a cigarette paper between his views on abortion and Luxon’s.

So should Collins’ views as a mayoral candidate matter?

Well, it appears prominent Stuff journalist Andrea Vance would (or perhaps should) think so.

Nearly a fortnight after Luxon became National’s leader last December and had made his position clear on not changing the abortion laws if he became Prime Minister, Vance still wouldn’t let it go.

In a column titled “Luxon’s views speak volumes about his attitude to women”, she described his views on abortion as something “I just cannot get past.”

Vance opined: “Some commentators (usually male) believe we should get over this preoccupation with Luxon’s anti-abortion stance. I’d prefer he got over his concern with our reproductive systems.

“Luxon, like everyone else, is entitled to their beliefs. But he says his evangelical Protestant Christian faith shaped his values. This is no small thing in politics — values are often more persuasive to voters than policy.

“Luxon’s views speak volumes about a disdainful attitude to women: in the pro-life doctrine women are dehumanised, merely vessels for delivering new life…”
I wonder how long we will have to wait before Vance similarly condemns Nanaia Mahuta and Efeso Collins for “values” that disdainfully “dehumanise” women as “merely vessels for delivering new life”?

Or is that sort of condemnation only reserved for male Pakeha politicians who lean right?

To ask, in this case, is to answer.

Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore.