Headlines about the ‘world’s gayest’ parliament only serve to highlight how far behind National has fallen on queer representation, writes Sam Brooks.
On Monday, the Australian Associated Press reported that New Zealand is on the brink, if current polling persists, of achieving the “gayest parliament in the world”. There are currently seven openly queer* MPs in our parliament, which could increase to nine and even to 11 if the Greens manage to increase their vote.
That’s something to celebrate. As Louisa Wall told the AAP, “numbers do matter. We have a critical mass with high visibility and we’re seen as valid.” She’s right; visibility is validity. If you see yourself represented, whether it’s onscreen or in parliament, you believe you have a right to exist, a right to be heard, a right to be seen.
What can’t be celebrated is National leader Todd Muller’s comments in that same article. Since the resignation of Chris Finlayson in 2019, National has had zero openly queer members on its party list. But Muller doesn’t think that matters all that much.
“It is not something I’m particularly focused on, ensuring that we find someone who may or may not represent the LGBTI community,” he said. “The key thing is that you have a party that has a track record of being open to the diversity of this country, as it is becoming increasingly so in terms of cultural, sexual orientation, perspectives of life.”
That’s the kind of inability to read the room that has marked the first two months of Muller’s leadership. “Not something I’m particularly focused on” is a diplomatic way of saying “it’s not a priority”. When I asked him whether he really thought “being open to diversity” is enough, this is what he said:
“I would welcome having more National Party candidates in the future who are openly gay, with the hope they could become Members of Parliament someday. I think that would be a very good thing for the party. I do think it is important that the party I lead is open-minded to how society and sexual orientation is evolving. I would hope that a more diverse range of candidates putting their hands up for National would then flow from that.”
To interject briefly: It goes without saying that the National Party should have more queer people on its list. Our political parties should reflect the country. But chances are, if you’ve got a room full of 47 people (again, if current polling persists), and not a single one of them is a queer person, there’s a problem with your room. “Welcoming” more queer candidates is not the same as actively seeking to include them.
Muller went on to tell me this: “I gave a speech in my home town of Te Puna recently where I talked about the value of feeling loved. For me, families are the fundamental units of our society and for them to thrive they need love – be they a traditional mum-dad-and-kids family or a family where it’s mum-and-mum or dad-and-dad. Families form communities and communities expose us to more ideas and perspectives than we gain from our own family alone.
“So I strongly believe that my party, and indeed any government I lead, should be focused on supporting families of all shapes, sizes and sexual orientations.”
Here, I absolutely agree with him. Communities expose us to more ideas and discussion than is available to us from our own family unit. That Muller, and the party he leads, is at least nominally focused on supporting families of all kinds is a good thing.
Muller closed his response to me by saying he didn’t think “the National Party has historically been closed-minded to LGBTI issues, nor do I think not being openly gay is a barrier to effectively representing the LGBTI community. The 27 National MPs who voted to make same-sex marriage legal in 2013 – including Maurice Williamson’s now-famous ‘big gay rainbow’ speech – would be a notable example.
“I agree that lived experience plays a big part in how someone performs as a politician. But, as I say, being open-minded to diversity is the important thing for me.”
One speech seven years ago does not a party direction make. And those last two sentences are, frankly, contradictory. You cannot simply be “open-minded” to diversity while acknowledging that lived experience plays a big part in how a politician performs, or the roles they are given. You need to do the work; you need to welcome people in, not just unlock the door and assume they’ll turn the handle.
Queer people are the most politically engaged people I know. Because we have to be, frankly. We live without many of the same rights afforded to everybody else – for example conversion therapy is still legal in this country, and queer men who have had any sexual activity are still not allowed to donate blood – and so we have to be invested in dismantling the systems and laws that prevent us from having them. Equality is a fight for queer people, as it is for many marginalised communities. You’re more likely to know how to swing a sword if you’ve had reason to pick one up in the first place.
I’m aware that it’s true that if a queer person wanted to become active in National Party politics, they probably could. The party has previously been home to out gay MPs Chris Finlayson, Paul Foster-Bell and Marilyn Waring (on a technicality, given she was outed in the 70s but only came out officially well after she left parliament).
But let’s face it: National has not been great to the queer community. Right now there are still 15 members on its list who voted against same-sex marriage, one of the most basic landmarks of queer rights. Despite what Todd Muller claims, there is no real “track record” of the National Party being open to diversity when it comes to the queer community. Open to publicity is not the same as being open to diversity. With the exception of the tokenistic, obligatory appearances at Pride events (and the occasional Express cover), this is not a party that has historically valued the queer community. Voting records matter, not hashtags.
Look, there are definitely people in the queer community who vote National; some are literal card-carrying members of the party. It’s a dirty secret that not every queer person is actually invested in progressing the rights of the community. They have other priorities, politically and socially. It’s not pretty but it’s true. There are many in the queer community who agree with National’s policies, or at the very least feel alienated by the policies of the left. They deserve to be represented in their party as well.
But no matter how much you agree with a party politically, nobody wants to be the only queer in the village. You might feel special for a moment, but there’s only so long before you become a target. It was only nine years ago that, according to Green MP Kevin Hague, then attorney general Finlayson was called “tinkerbell” by Trevor Mallard and Clayton Cosgrove (proof, should you need it, that the centre-left is hardly perfect in this regard). Even worse, you become an example to point to; you become the party’s technicality. Nobody gets into politics to be a technicality.
It’s a sad fact that if National wanted more queer representatives in its ranks, it would probably have them by now. But that kind of representation has clearly never been something that the party has valued, and it’s very hard to start the inclusivity race a couple decades behind everybody else.
It’s 2020. If your party does not represent the demographics of the country, it does not represent the country. If you’re not practising active, effortful inclusion, then you’re practising exclusion. Having a nice, pre-cooked phrase about being open to diversity doesn’t change that. If you’re failing to accurately represent the queer community, you’re not just failing that community. You’re failing the country.
Muller has said that he’s picked his shadow Cabinet based on merit and talent. I don’t doubt that, in his mind, he selected the best people in the room. But how can you pick the right people for the job if those people aren’t even in the room?
*This article uses the term ‘queer’ as an umbrella word to cover the wider rainbow and LGBTQIA+ community. This is the author’s choice, but he does acknowledge that other members of that community may wish to identify themselves differently.