Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Minister sets off collision of taboos

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Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei and Conservative Party leader Colin Craig. Photos / Alan Gibson, Richard Robinson
Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei and Conservative Party leader Colin Craig. Photos / Alan Gibson, Richard Robinson

The old point of etiquette that it is best to avoid discussing politics, religion and sex at a dinner party fell to the wayside this week as all three collided in spectacular fashion.

The catalyst was Social Development Minister Paula Bennett revealing the Government has set aside $1 million for grants for women on a benefit and their teenage daughters to get long-term, reversible contraception.

Despite assurances it would be voluntary, it was immediately deemed state control of ovaries by both the left and right. There were suggestions it was offensive to offer free contraception to women on benefits, alongside suggestions that all women should get it, not only beneficiaries.

There was the unlikely sight of Sue Bradford allying herself with the churches to bolster her opposition to the proposal.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said it amounted to coercion, conjuring up sci-fi visions of beneficiaries lying in rows of beds while white-cloaked officials tied them down to administer depo provera injections.

And then there was the good keen Christian man - Conservatives leader Colin Craig - who announced New Zealand women did not believe abstinence made the heart grow fonder: he objected to the state funding people's "lifestyle choices", saying international research had proven New Zealand women were the most promiscuous in the world.

The international research in question appears to be a 2007 global survey by condom maker Durex which found New Zealand women were the most promiscuous in the world, with an average of 20.4 sexual partners compared with the global average of 7.3. He appears to have missed another piece of critical research - but Gerry Brownlee will be delighted to hear that a 2008 study from Bradley University in Illinois found it was Finland which topped the casual sex stakes and even the British lay back and thought of England more than the New Zealanders.

The Government may be surprised by the reaction. Religious beliefs aside, free contraception is generally considered a good thing and it is far from a new concept. It is certainly better than the advice one beneficiary said she was offered by Work and Income to "keep your legs shut".

The Greens' "women's health policy" includes improving access to "family planning and sexual health services" to all women in New Zealand, especially the young, Maori and Pacific Islanders. Turei is a member of the New Zealand Parliamentarians' Group on Population and Development - a group hosted by Family Planning International which dedicates much of its efforts to sprinkling condoms through Pacific countries with high rates of HIV and performing free vasectomies.

The trouble is that it came from a National Government - and the contraceptive grants were bundled into the context of the wider welfare reforms. This automatically gave it the distinct whiff of, as one person called it, Big Sister. The most punitive provisions in those reforms relate to women on the benefit who have more children. This applies to about 4800 women a year - and Prime Minister John Key made it clear that it was aimed at helping those women from getting into such a situation.

However, if it was bemused by the reaction the Government will also be delighted. It had the effect of making National look tough on beneficiaries over an aspect of its welfare reforms that wasn't that tough on beneficiaries - and all for the bargain price of $1 million. National has worked hard to cultivate its image of being tough on beneficiaries while also leaving leeway to claim the opposite when it is accused of it. Its "tough but fair" line appears to resonate with that large portion of the public who agree that people who can work should work, just as they do.

The parties on the left fall for it every time. And that means that lovely ka-ching noise of votes in National's bank. So behind the anonymity of informal online polls and among callers to talkback land the prevailing view was that if somebody couldn't afford contraception, they certainly could not afford children and the taxpayer should not be expected to foot the bill.

The issue also gave us a glimpse into the parties' views on the issue of reproduction.

The Maori Party has a refreshingly blunt policy which consists of encouraging people to go forth and multiply, especially if they are Maori.

However, the Greens' stance is a tad more confused. For all her outcry about the state getting its "hands off our wombs" Turei conveniently did not mention the Greens still hold on to their rather odd "Population Policy" of 2008. That policy proposes setting an upper limit on population size, as well as separate "regional population" plans to ensure population did not increase beyond the capacity of the environment to cope.

It proposes ensuring parents have access to Family Planning to be able to make "informed decisions" about their family size and how far apart to have children.

The Greens have bridled at suggestions it was advocating population control through that policy, saying it was "misinterpreted" and it would never dictate how many children someone could have. In 2008, Turei said it was simply an effort to make families aware of the impact their families had on resources and the environment.

However, it is difficult to interpret the policy any other way. The policy sets out the end goal - a limit on population size. It is silent on the means to stay within that limit - largely because those means are politically unpalatable. But, to use an apt phrase for the context, you can't make an omelette without cracking a few eggs.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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