Exclusive: Jacinda Ardern Commits To Banning Conversion Therapy In New Zealand

JA 2020
Photo | Patric Seng.

On Wednesday 16 September, the Prime Minister, connects with Oliver Hall, via Zoom, to discuss uniting our rainbow community, banning conversion therapy and how NZ politics always keeps her ego in check.

“Everyone Should Be Free To Be Who They Are” – Jacinda Ardern

After a few moments of technical difficulties, our Prime Minister is radiating through my screen at me. It’s unnerving in this post-COVID age how clearly she can see my living room, and of course, just as I delicately approach the possibility of her losing the election, my cat makes an appearance and decides to play with the noisiest toy it can find.

The PM doesn’t bat an eyelid, the woman who kept her composure in a live tv interview while an earthquake shook the ground beneath her, wasn’t going to be phased by my mismatched throw rugs; nor me questioning how she stops the adulation she receives from international media from going to her head?

“There is no chance of that happening!  She says with a laugh (cackles can be heard from staff members off-camera), before delivering an answer that seems very telling about the inner workings of NZ politics.

“Particularly because culturally we are all self-deprecating. Tall poppy syndrome is something among all politicians that we cultivate,” she explains.

“If I’m on Facebook and I’ve posted something and I’m scrolling through the comments, I can tell you all I will focus on are the negatives because that’s what humans, particularly kiwis do. So there is zero chance of me ever getting ahead of myself. Because nothing I do will ever be good enough for me, let alone anyone else. That’s why I laughed!”

It’s an unexpected image; our savvy leader scrolling through social media comments in search of acceptance, but perhaps her trolls are the ideal antidote to the magazine covers (Vogue, Time, Express) and gushing Guardian headlines.

In her first term, however, fate has dealt Ardern a crueller hand Ardern than most trolls could muster.

‘A terrorist attack, a volcanic eruption and a worldwide pandemic,’ I list to her.

“Don’t forget a major biosecurity incursion,” she chimes in.

So why fight for another three years. When a bach on a Gisbourne beach could be calling your name?

“I think everyone right now has a desire for normality but alongside that, I have a deeply ingrained sense of responsibility and I’ve had that for a long time. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I became a member of Parliament and that’s overwhelmingly what I feel more than any other desire is just that sense of responsibility and that duty of care,” she says with poise, before cocking her head slightly to the side and adding with a warm smile, “but what you describe sounds idyllic!”

It’s the perfect answer from a politician who studied under Tony Blair and Helen Clark before stepping up to lead, but Ardern admits no amount of training could teach her how being Prime Minister would make her feel.

“I have two very different competing emotions: a deep sense of privilege and a very heavy weight of responsibility at the same time. They really act then as a ballast almost because no matter how heavy the burden, you know you’re carrying it.”

So when I ask if she relishes the job, her answer feels steeped in those competing emotions.

Most days I will find something that reminds me that I am lucky to have this role. Most days. There are some days when that is harder than others,” she says solemnly.

We turn our attention to the election and if Labour gets a second term in government, what they intend to do for the rainbow community. A community that in Ardern’s reign has felt divided, as we struggle to find a middle ground between old values and new ideas.

Ardern looks to be in her element when I ask her thoughts on how we best progress forward. This is clearly part of the job she relishes.

“As with so many issues that we’ve tackled as a nation, that might seem worlds apart, actually so often you can distil these things down into a very simple principle and philosophy, a value that sits at the heart of who we are as New Zealanders; everyone should be free to be who they are.”

“People should not be discriminated against, bullied or hurt for being who they are. We need to rally around that simple premise. There have been some debates that have divided but if we progress some of those legislative principles around that value, then I think we will all come together again.”

Legislation-wise Labour’s second-term priorities for the rainbow community will revolve around improving homelessness and mental health, with government bills around conversion therapy and self-gender identification working as starting points for improving the latter. 

I am committing Labour to ban Conversion Therapy in New Zealand,” she states. “This is a prime example of where an element of our system allows for quite damaging activity, which in modern NZ should just not be happening.”

“I still remember watching the film Latter Days at the film festival in Wellington some years ago. That film never left me,” she says with a pained tone. “And it’s one of the reasons I feel quite strongly about this policy.”

There’s a sadness in her eyes as we discuss this. In their first three years, Ardern’s government have not banned this damaging practise that conservative states in Australia and the US have successfully criminalised. Their excuse is that they do not govern alone, but this election MMP could potentially put them in that same position.

“We need numbers in the house to pass legislation. So what I’m committing to is, if we are able to form a government this will be on our agenda. I will commit our numbers to delivering this and I hope there will other parties in parliament who will support it. If New Zealand delivers a parliament that doesn’t give us those numbers, I will do what I can to still get it over the line, regardless.”

The rainbow community over-representing in mental health statistics also raises the amendment to the Births, Deaths & Marriage act, known as the gender self I.D bill, which would allow an easier, less intrusive process for people to change their gender on the likes of birth certificates and drivers licenses. During Ardern’s time as PM, the bill was raised and then shelved. She tells us it will return and explains the delay.

“When it was debated in the last parliament, there was a question mark around whether the legislation faced the risk of being challenged because it had not gone through a select committee process. That could cause a long debate, legal uncertainty and ultimately quite a distressing situation. So we went back and established a working group with representatives from the community including the likes of Georgina Beyer, to help us get it right. So our focus is to continue the work that will help strengthen the legislation and then reintroduce the bill in parliament.”

An issue that has held back this bill and the rights of trans people in general, seem to fall around the concept that the bill could provide a window for predatory males masquerading as trans women to access women’s only spaces. Ardern acknowledges this and is clear how she sees things moving forward.

“There are parts of what is fundamentally ‘that’ debate that have been clouded by singular examples in some cases, rather than coming back to the principle itself. My view is that this idea that long fought for rights are somehow undermined by giving others rights, is not true. As long as we can have these debates with members of the community sitting around the table, then working through the legislative framework to get it right, is worth the time. And is ultimately how we will bring everyone together.”

An assistant calls time on our call, so we email our final questions and receive answers on Friday 25 September. Among them, Ardern assures us Labour are “absolutely committed to ending homelessness,” pointing to their new National Homelessness Action Plan to achieve this and blaming, “severe pressure in New Zealand’s housing market has built up after years of housing shortages that were decades in the making,” for the current status quo that sees rainbow kiwis overrepresented into our homeless numbers. 

Finally, if Labour gets the majority that election polls are predicting, we ask how closely Ardern would intend to consider the views of other parties? Like all good politicians, she takes the opportunity to have a swipe at the opposition.

“On really significant issues, where we want to bring about lasting change, I do think it’s really worth trying to build consensus. We did that on the Zero Carbon Act and also on the Child Poverty Reduction legislation. Unfortunately, the National Party has changed their position on these important pieces of legislation during the election campaign, but I hold some hope their position will change again in the future!”