By HELEN TUNNAH deputy political editor
Politicians have voted to decriminalise prostitution.
In a narrow vote yesterday, they approved a new law allowing the running of brothels and soliciting.
The Prostitution Reform Bill was passed 60 votes to 59 after New Zealand's first Muslim MP, Ashraf Choudhary, abstained.
His decision not to vote came after he experienced intense lobbying from both sides of the debate.
It was enough to allow the controversial new law to pass.
Dr Choudhary, a Labour list MP, previously opposed the changes. Yesterday, he did not say why he abstained.
"That's just how I felt," he told the Herald.
The passage of the bill after the conscience vote was greeted with cheers and applause from a packed public gallery.
The bill's sponsor, Labour MP Tim Barnett, said he was delighted but "numb".
Under the previous laws, prostitution was not illegal but acts associated with it, such as soliciting, pimping and brothel-keeping, were.
The bill allows court-approved people to operate brothels and to live off the earnings of sex workers.
It also requires brothels, clients and prostitutes to practise safe sex to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, perhaps through the compulsory use of condoms.
Prostitutes can now ask for an employment contract, and are protected by health and safety laws.
Critics of the bill argued the new law could not be enforced, and said brothels were now vulnerable to gang or criminal involvement.
They also said decriminalising prostitution would make it more acceptable.
Police backed away from supporting the bill this week, saying the way it was written opened the sex industry to exploitation.
Politicians have worked on the bill for almost three years, and last night Mr Barnett said the overwhelming feeling after the vote would be one of relief.
He rejected opponents' claim that he wanted to "normalise" prostitution, saying he was trying to replace an outdated, biased and largely unenforced law.
"It does not seek to label prostitution as normal, but it does accept its inevitability."
Mr Barnett said MPs had two choices. They could agree to a law which best protected sex workers while protecting community sensitivities, or they could accept the status quo with all its faults.
He said the state licensed massage parlours, knowing they were a front for prostitution.
Supporters of the bill in the public gallery included Prostitutes Collective and Rape Crisis workers.
They applauded Mr Barnett's final speech, but his criticism of church groups who opposed the bill was attacked by his political rivals.
National MP Nick Smith said he wanted prostitution laws toughened to make it a crime to pay for sex.
Decriminalising prostitution should be judged not on what was best for sex workers, but what was best for New Zealand society.
Dr Smith said prostitution cheapened sex and was nothing more than "paid rape".
He held his head in his hands when the result of the vote was announced.
An emotional plea to pass the law came from the one MP with experience of the sex trade, the country's first transsexual MP, Georgina Beyer.
"I support this bill for all the prostitutes I've ever known who have died before the age of 20 because of the inhumanity and hypocrisy of a society that would not allow them, or give them the chance, to ever redeem whatever circumstances made them arrive in this industry."
One of the bill's strongest supporters was Green MP Sue Bradford, who urged women MPs and those who considered themselves feminists to support Mr Barnett.
"Restrictive laws merely encourage violence, trafficking, rape and the spread of HIV/Aids, not the opposite."
Labour MP Winnie Laban, whose last-minute support was crucial to the bill's success, said she would have been a hypocrite to vote against it. She faced strong lobbying from the large number of churches in her Mana electorate.
"I advocate for social and economic inclusion and then to turn around [it would] be quite hypocritical to say no to this group they can't have the same protection."