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When Bill English took the reigns of the National Party last December, the promise was for more of the same. While the “Boring Bill” label may have stuck, English’s staunch political ideology has proven that narrative to be quite misleading. Nowhere is that more apparent than on issues like abortion.
During an interview last week, the Prime Minister was asked whether he would stand in the way of abortion law reform if he won the election. English’s response was that his position was already well known and he would not be deviating from that. When pressed, he said that any push to reform the law was really just an attempt to “liberalise” it.
English’s position, marking a stark difference from his predecessor, is that he is a social conservative and a devout Catholic. He voted against marriage equality and is steadfastly opposed to both euthanasia and abortion reform.
The law governing abortion in New Zealand has remained relatively stagnant for the past 40 years. It was introduced with the landmark 1961 Crimes Act and formalised in 1977 with the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act. As a result of those two pieces of legislation, abortion is a criminal offence in New Zealand. That is unless at least two doctors formally agree that there is a serious danger to the physical or mental health of the pregnant person.
The Abortion Supervisory Committee, a government body charged with keeping an eye on the law, has called for a major review. In their most recent report, the committee noted the significant technological and social changes that have occurred since the law was first passed. If you’re wondering just how out of date the legislation is, the committee frustratedly notes that it still refers to doctors exclusively as “he.”
Time for a change then? Well, not according to the PM. English said that the legislation had “stood the test of time” and did not require revision.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Andrew Little committed to review the law if elected. Deferring to his newly minted deputy, Little said he agreed with Ardern that abortion should not be a criminal offence.
Staunch ideology is not something we are particularly used to seeing from New Zealand politicians. The populism of Key’s government and Labour’s slow drift toward the centre have made it increasingly difficult to tell left from right. But under English, that looks to be changing. “Boring Bill” or not, the Prime Minister is putting his stake in the ground.
Battle for Hauraki-Waikato
With the recent announcement of Kīngi Tuheitia’s support for Rahui Papa in Hauraki-Waikato, the Māori electorates look set to be some of the most important battlegrounds in the election.
Until recently, the endorsement would have been an unusually political move for the Kīngitanga leader. However, after a speech last year criticising Labour, the King has made his political leanings more explicit.
Papa has extensive connections with Te Kīngitanga and Waikato-Tainui. He currently chairs Te Arataura, the iwi’s executive branch. He is expected to be officially selected as the Māori Party candidate for Hauraki-Waikato this week. In Waikato, the King’s endorsement will mean a lot.
The announcement also deepens the divide between Labour and the Māori Party, at a time when tensions are already running high.
In his speech at Pārāwera marae, Tuheitia described the sitting MP, Labour’s Nania Mahuta, as a backbencher and lacking mana within her party. He also questioned why she had been passed over for the deputy leadership despite serving longer than Jacinda Ardern.
In response, Mahuta said that the Kīngitanga had never supported her candidacy despite her holding the electorate since its creation in 2008. She claimed to have previously been told that this was because Te Kīngitanga was an apolitical organisation.
Andrew Little was more blunt, saying that the King was “abusing his office” by endorsing Papa. This follows his previous comments questioning the Māori Party’s achievements as coalition partners in government. Little faced backlash last month after claiming that the Māori Party was not “kaupapa Māori.”
The Māori electorates have been increasingly a focus for Labour after the Māori Party signed a non-compete agreement with the Mana Movement. The deal means that the Māori Party will not oppose Mana in Te Tai Tokerau. In return, Mana will not contest any of the remaining six electorates.
The King’s endorsement also raised the ire of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Peters said that the King was under undue influence from his former advisor, the now president of the Māori Party, Tukoroirangi Morgan.
These are extremely important developments for Te Kīngitanga, and the wider Waikato region. They could also have a big impact on the general election results. If the King’s support and a deal with Mana are enough for the Māori Party to wrestle a few seats from Labour, it could make them an influential coalition partner.