Labour likely to make women a key issue

Taieri Labour MP Ingrid Leary might 
Taieri Labour MP Ingrid Leary might have revealed a little too much about her party’s plans to confront National at next year’s general election. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT TV
It may be ascribing too much to a speech late in the general debate a year out from polling day, but on Wednesday Taieri Labour MP Ingrid Leary might have revealed the site of one of the battlefields where her party plans to confront National 12 months hence.

Ms Leary devoted her five minutes in the weekly free-for-all debate to attack National’s policies relating to women — or lack of them, to her mind — and the allegedly sterling service Labour has paid to the distaff.

Having firstly pointed out Labour’s greater diversity (54% of its members are women), and the record nine women in Cabinet — National has 11 women in its entire caucus — Ms Leary went on to run through a wide range of Labour’s pro-women policies.

"What does the National Party plan to do for women?" she asked.

"I haven't heard a single idea, and I'm not expecting much, either, because, when I look at the opposite side of the House, I don't see much diversity."

It was a question the next speaker, the indisputably male National MP Andrew Bayly, did not answer, but he did counterpunch that the ongoing cost-of-living crisis — and Labour’s to his mind feeble response to it — was exactly the sort of thing which was going to make it harder for women and their families.

Leaving aside the fact that Ms Leary is far more qualified to comment on what women think than Mr Bayly is — let alone this columnist for that matter — he did raise a reasonable debating point, that being whether or not economic issues are gender issues?

Pay parity and pay equity which Labour has striven to advance, as well as paid parental leave and leave for women who have had a miscarriage definitely meet that description.

Ensuring free period products for all primary, intermediate, and secondary schools and for kura, was welcome and well overdue.

But families of all gender constructions benefit from policies cited by Ms Leary such as Best Start, which provides an extra $65 a week for the parents of newborns, and free and healthy lunches into schools.

"That is the stuff that women care about," Ms Leary said, but surely most men are equally concerned about whether their offspring are nourished or not?

Likewise, all parents care about expanded school-based health services, making doctors' visits free for children under 14 and reducing compulsory school fees.

The premise underpinning Ms Leary’s argument was that the women’s vote was monolithic and could and should be influenced by what she perceived women’s interests to be.

But women have equally as diverse political views as men, as the 11 National women opposite and the four in Act’s caucus — let alone Maori party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, the seven women in the Green caucus and possibly a few of Ms Leary’s own backbench colleagues as well — can testify to.

And those MPs do not narrowly oppose all Labour policy to stay running in their party-assigned lanes: some of the initiatives cited by Ms Leary, such as the Accident Compensation (Maternal Birth Injury and Other Matters) Amendment Bill passed just this week, were widely welcomed because they are good for women.

Eventually and unsurprisingly, Ms Leary moved on to the question of abortion, noting that her party had removed it from the Crimes Act and treated it as a health issue, but saying "I still don't know what the Leader of the Opposition's position really is on that."

As noted previously in Southern Say, South Dunedin’s favourite son and deputy prime minister Grant Robertson was unusually determined to attack Christopher Luxon on this point at the time, and Ms Leary is the latest of many Labour MPs who have opted to follow suit, not being reassured at all by Mr Luxon’s statement that he does not plan to revisit the issue if elected.

"One minute he votes one way, another minute he's not ruling out which way he's going to vote," Ms Leary said, to howls of derision from the opposite side.

"We don't know, as women, what National is going to do in the space of women's reproductive health, should they ever get into government."

That is may be but what we assuredly know, thanks to Ms Leary’s speech and a raft of supporting material, is that Labour intends to make that very question a central plank of its attacks on National for the next 12 months.

Without either exit polling or very precise pre-election polling it is hard to tell if there is indeed a firm bloc of women who choose to vote purely and specifically on perceived women’s issues.

But Labour certainly has made up its mind on the question; the electorate now has to supply the answer.

What we do know is that the economy is always at the forefront of voter’s mind at election time and gender, issue or not, economic performance remains the yardstick by which woman and men will judge Labour.