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Prostitution Bill passes by one vote

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Prostitution Bill passes by one vote

By Dave Crampton

Parliament last night passed law changes after MP’s used their conscience to vote 60-59 in favour of decriminalising prostitution.

After 32 months of discussion, 222 public submissions and 415 hours of debate by Parliament and its select committees there is now a legal framework around the prostitution industry.

Those in the packed public gallery who supported the Prostitution Law Reform Bill erupted with cheers when the vote was read out. Others sat there with ashen faces before walking out. There was a mixed bunch in the gallery: many from the Prostitutes Collective, a few Christians, transsexuals, lobbyists and even a teenager with a bright T-shirt declaring “Jesus loves hookers”.

United Future and NZ First MPs opposed the bill, while Green MPs and Cabinet Ministers supported it. Labour MP Ashraf Choudhary abstained from the vote. Had he not done so there most likely would have been a tied vote, the Bill would not have passed, and my prediction of a tied vote would have been bang on. Perhaps Choudhary didn’t want to vote against Helen Clark, but this is a conscience vote – so does no vote mean no conscience? It certainly means that the Muslim community have good reason not to be impressed with Choudhary as he was lobbied to death this week by those in his community who opposed the Bill.

Another wavering Labour MP was Winnie Laban. A Christian, she originally opposed the bill but changed her mind after intense lobbying, mainly from Christians on both sides of the debate, pointing out biblical texts to justify their arguments.

Act MP Stephen Franks said the debate surrounding the Bill revolved more around prostitution itself than the content and intent of the Bill. “ Is this a better law?” he asked. A former Bill supporter, his turning point in voting against the Bill was that sex workers are not required to give proof of age. NZ First MP Peter Brown warned Parliament that if the Bill became law, prostitutes would become legitimate commodities for sale and pimps would be legitimate business people. He also questioned the ability of local authorities to police the sex industry, “Take the police out of the equation and there will be more trafficking of women.”

Bill sponsor Tim Barnett said in Parliament this Bill was the most significant debate in the House on a moral issue since homosexual law reform 17 years ago. In his final speech he questioned the relevance of the current laws surrounding prostitution. “The state licenses massage parlours knowing they are fronts for prostitution,” he said. “Yet the operator who coerces a sex worker, or creates an illegal contract to control their workers is not a law breaker. There is no morality, no consistency in that.”

Former hooker and current Labour MP Georgina Beyer gave an impassionate speech for the Bill, describing her time as a sex worker before decrying current law. “In five years we can reassess this (but) this legalistic status quo is unacceptable,” she said. She then quickly – and briefly - left the House and burst into tears. It was an emotional night, and her speech was one of the highlights of the evening.

Prostitutes Collective Catherine Healy described the vote as a relief, as she was not confident it would pass. Neither was Tim Barnett, who looked a bit amazed after the vote. The first he knew that he’d “done it” was when he witnessed Act MP Heather Roy casting her vote – the 60th - for the Bill.

Now that the Bill is passed, prostitution remains as legal as it ever was, but now the offences surrounding the act of prostitution are no longer a crime. Brothel operators now have to be certified each year by the courts and local authorities will be charged with their location. Bans around brothel keeping and procuring, which in itself are not harmful, will be removed but the law does nothing about the legal act that is harmful to women. Prime Minister Helen Clark described prostitution as “abhorrent” last week on a national radio station, but voted for a bill that will now be governed by law based not on disapproval of prostitution, but acceptance.

Later, at a pre-arranged media conference, Green MP Sue Bradford was all smiles. “I came to change things for people at the bottom in this country – I’m over the moon.”

United Future MP Larry Baldock wants to know where all the OSH workers will come from now that OSH will be involved in attempting to make places of prostitution safer. He wants to promote a select committee inquiry into the prostitution industry and its working conditions.

But surely, after three years of looking into the sex industry, MP’s should have found out all they need to know by now.

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