In an article first published in New Zealand’s Express newspaper, Prime Minister Helen Clark talks to Victor van Wetering about relevant issues, including the New Zealand government’s recent public apology to the Chinese community.
VICTOR VAN WETERING If Chinese communities warrant an apology from you or the government about past transgressions, don’t our queer communities in New Zealand -“ given they’ve been criminalised and stigmatised for such a long time?
HELEN CLARK That’s a fair point and ever since we offered the apology to the Chinese community, people have said, What about this group, what about that group?
And I’ve said if you can substantiate the case, come and see us.
VVW Do we need to do that?
HC Even in the Chinese community there’s been debate about whether they even want an apology, so I think it’s important that the government not initiate that.
With the Chinese community, what may not be appreciated was not only was there simmering resentment going back many decades, but in 1994 the Chinese Association commissioned research to document it, and then had a debate in their own ranks about how to progress it.
Five years later it was raised with me as leader of the opposition -“ would we consider it in government. I said, Well, look, put a case to us, and that eventually came and we acted on the basis of that.
And even then some people -“ mainly National Party-inspired, we’ve got Pansy Wong who’s made an absolute idiot of herself -“ were still saying it shouldn’t have happened. So apologies are not without controversy, but in this case it came from the community and it was well-researched and we responded.
VVW Would you not know in yourself though that there is a case? There are those who would oppose the notion of victimhood, anyway, but would you not know from your own life experience of lesbian and gay communities, given you’ve been quite closely connected with them right through your career, that there has been historically -¦
HC Absolutely and it’s been disgraceful. I would offer my personal apology now on behalf of the government, it’s been disgraceful, of course it has.
People have put up with the most appalling discrimination, stereotyping, people have been criminalised. Of course it is. Dreadful.
Mind you, as a woman, I’d like to say a few things as well, you know.
VVW Go ahead.
HC Bugger it! I remember when I was a student in 1969, before the equal pay act went through, doing holiday jobs in factories, in a plastics factory in Onehunga where I was paid less than the fellow in the next machine because I was a woman.
I mean if we’re going to go into it, there are a hell of a lot of people with a grudge around the place. Women have suffered discrimination. If you go back to Sandra Coney’s mother’s generation, when they married they had to leave the public service.
The past is full of injustice.
VVW Labour efficiently compiled its party list, boasting about its team and a strong Maori contingent. But of course there were three lesbian candidates in the top 50 so we could have as many as six queer MPs post this election. Why is greater Maori and queer representation a good thing?
HC Because the parliament should be representative of the community and I think Labour’s really led the way in opening the door to communities who have been under-represented: women, Maori, Pacific peoples, the gay community.
We have the first Asian member, for us, highly likely to come in, high on our list.
We’re conscious of the need for parliament to be truly a parliament of the people. When you compare it with what it was when I came in, it’s just changed out of all recognition.
VVW Presently same-sex partners living together are entitled to individual benefits under the social welfare system rather than being regarded as a couple. Is this likely to change?
HC Perhaps one of the down-sides of equal treatment is that is probably likely to change -“ in the sense that social security law has in the past used the test of living in the nature of a marriage. But then because of the hangover bits of what is marriage [it] was never able to apply that to homosexual relationships.
I would think that over time, if there’s going to be equality of treatment, there is probably that implication.
VVW What implications does the TVNZ charter have in terms of enhancing the visibility of gay people?
HC I hope quite a lot because the charter requires TVNZ to reflect the diverse perceptions, nature, heritage, achievements of New Zealanders.
It’s fair to say that Television New Zealand hasn’t given the gay community great profile. Do you get something on in the dim dark part of the night? There used to be -¦
VVW Queer Nation at 11pm and re-run at 1am.
HC Well, that’s great!
I know it’s at a hopeless time, I’ve personally never seen it live. Some people have dropped off the odd video when I’ve been interviewed myself.
But that is marginalisation, the same way Pacific Island people felt about Tagata Pasifica being run at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning when most people are at church -¦ so they can’t see it. It is marginalisation.
VVW How do you respond to critics of hate crime legislation who say that justice should be blind, that the offence is the offence and that the motivation for it is irrelevant?
HC No. Because I knew you were going to ask that, I went away and got Tim [Barnett] to write a bit on it and I absolutely agree with what he says.
He says, Motive is critical to crime and a motive of violent prejudice is a threat to all in the group hated by that person and it can’t be ignored.
So if the police have an understanding of the hate motivation, that’s really quite important.
I think it is different.
Also, singling out hate crime acts as a strong message to the legal system and the police, that prejudice which is so strong that it drives someone to attack those whose characteristics they hate is simply intolerable. Such crime is arbitrary and frequently cruel. So we’re saying this is intolerable to the extent that it is specifically designated.
VVW What about someone with internalised homophobia who lashes out at gays? In some ways s/he could be seen as a victim as well as a perpetrator.
HC Well, we’re interested in the perpetration.
VVW Opponents chip away at your being childless. What motivates that prejudice?
HC They’ve been at it for years and my own view, Victor, is that it’s been totally counterproductive. It’s meant to be offensive, it’s meant to be hurtful.
But I actually have great faith in the commonsense of Kiwis and I think these days most people are going to say, For God’s sake, people are entitled to make a choice about their life, Helen’s made her choice, that’s fine with us.
So what are they getting at? Am I supposed to not be a real woman because I haven’t had children? It’s all bizarre. And I don’t think most people relate to it. Sure their little hard core relate to it because they’re just bitchy and silly and I’ve put up with it for years.
VVW It’s kind of the law and order, family values niche of right-wing politics.
HC Warped, warped family values on a very narrow definition of what is family.
VVW Your marriage and sexuality have also been the subject of whispering campaigns. How have you coped with that?
HC You see this is the problem, isn’t it, because as a tolerant, accepting person, what I have to say immediately is there’s nothing wrong with being a lesbian.
I’m not lesbian myself but some of my best friends are, literally. So I can’t take it as an insult because it’s not wrong in any way to be lesbian.
But those who do the whispering about that of course do come from an ethical position that being lesbian is morally wrong and so they’re trying to communicate to that section of the community that share their views, that I may be such a person.
So it’s designed to be a smear. I’m going to refuse really to see it as a smear because I say if I was, so what!
But I know what they’re digging at and again I just have great faith in Kiwis sorting this rubbish out.
VVW Another double standard is the whole notion of women in power in New Zealand. Twenty years ago all the men were, but no one made an issue of it. What are some other examples of the double standards you’ve encountered in a life in politics? We’ve only got so many minutes, so I guess you’ll need to edit them a bit.
I like to think that we’ve put most of it behind us but I remember when I was first leader of the opposition I got the most incredible amount of criticism.
There were male journalists who were fond of writing that I didn’t connect with people, didn’t connect with them. I’ve never been able to work that out. And it proved to be transparently wrong.
There was a similar stereotype that to be successful in politics you had to be strong and determined; that when the first woman fronted as a contender for prime minister -“ and I was strong and very determined, I had to be to get into that position -“ that was sort of tough and unfeminine.
So, yeah, what was seen as strength in men was seen as not female, not womanly.
But I think we’ve left all that behind us. I think people have got used to women at the top now.
VVW Do you think it creates a more benign environment?
HC Oh yes, yeah. The fact that women can be accepted in these kinds of jobs is a great signal for all other groups who’ve been marginalised, whether we’re talking gay-lesbian, whether we’re talking ethnic communities, Maori, Pacific peoples, it’s a sign of acceptance in New Zealand and I think it’s good.
VVW I’ve seen you relaxed at the Otara market, talking to new immigrants, greeted with huge enthusiasm at the Big Gay Out. You’re arguably more accessible than any immediate past prime ministers, relaxed, and you seem really comfortable with people and to relish contact with people from these communities. What’s that about?
HC I have a view that you need to keep in touch with people and if you don’t like people you shouldn’t be in this job.
If you want to sort of hole yourself up in your office and never see anyone, you shouldn’t be in the job. You’ve got to like people, you’ve got to want to reach out, get contact, get feedback and that’s what I do.
And I make myself very widely accessible, probably at the cost to my own timetable, diary, free time.
Yeah, in principle I am accessible because I believe in that style of politics.