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National leader Christopher Luxon tried to brush away concerns arising from the US Supreme Court’s repudiation of Roe v Wade. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Watching the week-long effort by National Party leader Christopher Luxon to extricate himself from the abortion debate was instructive in several respects. First of all, I was struck by the latitude Luxon was granted
as he repeatedly revised and extended his remarks on the subject.
To me, that was the clearest sign yet the New Zealand media has become deeply invested in a competitive election, which in turn depends on the viability of Luxon’s leadership. I could only cast my mind back to the brief and ill-starred tenure of David Shearer, who would have been shipped off on a plane to South Sudan by day three of a similarly mishandled fracas.
Whether on this or the Treaty gaffe I’ve written about earlier, the press gallery demonstrate a level of patience when it comes to Luxon’s missteps that hasn’t always been extended to similarly inexperienced leaders on either side of the aisle. Politics is so often about timing, and Luxon has it on his side.
What was also striking about Luxon’s rambling abortion semantics was how long it took him to grasp what the problem actually was.
In the first instance, Luxon tried to brush away concerns arising from the US Supreme Court’s repudiation of Roe v Wade in an almost scoffing tone, utilising a technique particularly ill-suited to the subject matter: mansplaining.
Constitutional arrangements in the United States, he told us, are entirely unrelated to our own and therefore any concern for New Zealand’s future abortion laws was misplaced.
This was so wrongheaded in so many ways it’s amazing in retrospect anyone thought it might suffice.
First, political leaders don’t get to rule subjects in or out of bounds like that. Second, the US culture war regularly shapes our discourse – think of the Supreme Court marriage equality ruling. And, thirdly, the Dobbs decision sent shockwaves not merely because of its substantive effects on abortion rights in America, but because it claws back human rights established half a century ago. This jarring reminder of the fragility of progress made this far more than a mere matter of US domestic policy. To say Luxon misread the room here is understatement.
It got worse before it got better for Luxon. During his next foray to the podium over this issue, Luxon went for a hard pivot that only served to reinforce the impression of tone deafness.
This was the What Women Want phase, whereupon he advised us with the brazen assuredness only a CEO of a state-backed airline can muster that New Zealand women are actually too worried about the cost of groceries to bother with this whole palaver.
This did not go down well – and suggests Luxon either doesn’t grasp, or hasn’t worked out how to contend with, the fact that his abortion stance is actually highly relevant, and deeply off-putting, to many women across the country.
Even before the Dobbs decision, and certainly in the days since, several women whose politics were previously unknown to me have told me they consider Luxon’s characterisation of abortion as murder to be offensive and disqualifying.
Some have pointed out that many more women than you might imagine have availed themselves of abortion services in the past, and Luxon’s hardline equation of the procedure with homicide will land very personally with them.
Only time will tell whether Luxon’s position – that abortion is murder but he won’t prosecute it if you make him PM – is tenable in the long term, but it’s a risk a lot of women – and men who support women – will be unwilling to take.
On the issue of gang violence, Luxon will feel he’s on safer ground parading his brand of social conservatism. Maybe it can win him votes. But his rhetoric and proposed solutions are leaving anyone who’s had any real-world exposure to longstanding challenges of gangs, violence and crime in New Zealand scratching their heads.
Does Luxon really think banning patches will get us anywhere? When he repudiates cease-fire agreements between Auckland gangs on the basis that they have no right to be part of such discussions, is this hardline posturing just that or does he sincerely believe what he’s saying?
Does he think longer sentences, zero tolerance and chest-pounding will send gang members scurrying away from crime and into the suburban middle class?
Luxon either believes this nonsense on gangs, or he doesn’t but says it anyway. Neither speaks well of the kind of Prime Minister he promises to be, and nor do his verbal acrobatics on something as fundamental – and as susceptible to incursion – as a woman’s bodily autonomy.
• Shane Te Pou (Ngai Tuhoe) is a commentator, blogger and former Labour party activist.
Post source: Nzherald