During the election period in 2017, historian Anne Salmond wrote hopefully about an emerging trend she called “Jacindamania.” The appeal of Jacinda Ardern, leader of New Zealand’s Labour Party, was due to the fact that people want real “change”: “after 33 years of the cult of the ‘free market’ from both major parties, many Kiwis are finding that its arguments no longer ring true.” Salmond believed that “a seismic shift is under way.”
As prime minister, Ardern has been keen to demonstrate that she is “focused on more than just GDP,” by placing an emphasis on mental health as a liberal alternative to the bland conservative fixation on gross domestic product as a measure of national wellbeing. In her words, “Nobody wants to live in a country where, despite a strong economy, families are homeless, where our environment is being rapidly degraded and people with mental health issues do not receive the support they need.”
It is not surprising that people are suffering widespread depression, anxiety and mental illness. As Salmond wrote, “The mindless pursuit of short-term profit has not just poisoned waterways across New Zealand. It’s been toxic for communities as well.” We live under a system that is based on exploitation and that inevitably breeds mental illness and addiction, which capitalism interprets as nothing but a lucrative market for major industries from alcohol to drugs, cosmetics to pharmaceuticals.
By now, many people understand that these problems are systemic and cyclical, social and collective, not just individual and medical. According to Salmond, young New Zealanders wanted a government that would address them accordingly, and “Jacindamania” would be the answer.
So there is some hype around the Labour Party’s 2019 “Wellbeing Budget,” released on May 30 by finance minister Grant Robertson. Promotional videos frame the budget as an “exciting,” radical departure from the usual dry and misanthropic financial plan, “with the biggest investment in mental health, in any Budget, ever.” In practical terms, this investment is a scheme to place mental health practitioners in doctors’ clinics throughout the country, in a system that will allow GPs to immediately refer patients with mental health concerns. Ardern also emphasises the need for addiction services.
To determine whether we are really being collectively heard, or just collectively patronised, it is worth staying grounded in some sound and critical understandings of what addiction and mental illness really are and where they come from.
World renowned addiction expert Gabor Maté understands addiction as a coping mechanism that “does not begin with the brain, it begins with the circumstances that shaped the brain.” To address mental illness and addiction at the social scale, he stresses the importance of thinking beyond clinical solutions. To Maté, addressing widespread addiction means tending to the early years of life, the relationship between mother and child, and the “parenting environment.” In his analysis, the conditions in which mothers care for children are crucial to individual and social wellbeing. This is psychology 101, and feminists have always said that the measure of a healthy society is how it treats its women.
This means that Ardern and Labour Party’s promises to deliver social wellbeing will need to be evaluated against the way they respond to the demands of New Zealand women – and New Zealand women protested this government throughout 2018, as mothers, as midwives, nurses and teachers. A female “role model” in the country’s top job has not sufficed for us so far, however sweetly she smiles. For us, social wellbeing clearly means radical change to the conditions in which women live.
Addressing child poverty is indeed a major promise in Ardern’s new budget, and top of the list is a funding increase for the Ministry for Children, Oranga Tamariki. Last month, the current events site Newsroom reported that on average, Oranga Tamariki confiscates three Māori babies from mothers staying in maternity hospitals each week. A young mother told journalist Melanie Reid that “If I had three wishes it would be to keep my baby, have a house, and to have Oranga Tamariki leave me alone.”
As Reid reported, this young woman had been left alone in a hospital room overnight as police and staff from Oranga Tamariki tried to take her baby. Two midwives – Ripeka Ormsby and Jean Te Huia from Māori Midwives Aotearoa – were locked out of the hospital for trying to intervene.
Te Huia previously appeared in the media in April, in the Sunday documentary The Black Hole, which drew attention to the fact that about 1 in 4 mothers are affected by perinatal depression and anxiety in New Zealand. “The problems that we are seeing are more social than clinical,” Te Huia said, echoing Maté (more accurately, Maté echoes what indigenous women have always known). “There’s partnership issues, there’s poverty, lack of housing… There’s a sense of shame and blame when you can’t cope.” Te Huia asked an important question:
“Does this government really care about Māori women? Do they care about the workforce, that’s overworked? Do they care about us, as women, in this country?”
Midwives, nurses and teachers – all overworked, female-dominated professions – protested the Ardern government throughout 2018. In May, midwives marched to parliament, with Wellington Region of the College of Midwives chairwoman Siobhan Connor, saying that the average take-home hourly income for for urban midwives is $12.80 – and for rural midwives, $7.23. “Midwives are leaving the profession because of this,” she said, “and then women lose access to maternity care.”
Last July, nurses also went on strike: 92 percent of all nursing staff in New Zealand are women, according to the Nursing Council. “We’re not asking to be millionaires,” Registered nurse Danni Wilkinson explained. “We’re asking to be able to afford to live where we can take care of the patient population.”
Teachers, unable to make the Ardern government listen to their demands, marched in August last year and then again on 29 May. 72 percent of teaching staff in New Zealand are women. “I want my students to have the education they deserve,” Lisa Geraghty wrote, in an article outlining teachers’ demands and why she voted to strike. “I want them to have teachers who have time to teach them. I want them to have teachers who aren’t exhausted, burnt-out, and feeling undervalued.” These women have all been locked into tense negotiations, ongoing and demoralising.
One promise Labour’s budget makes, in terms of addressing the social and cyclical underpinnings of wellbeing, is to “make sure that we break the cycle of domestic violence, sexual violence and poverty for children.” This should indeed be a priority: at least sixteen women and girls were murdered by men in New Zealand last year, the year that Ardern famously claimed that she believes that “#metoo” needs to become “#wetoo.”
One thing that needs to happen urgently is for the government to uphold UN recommendations for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the New Zealand Family Court. Last November, the Backbone Collective – an organisation that works with mothers trapped in abusive homes – presented a petition asking for just that. In 2017, the organisation surveyed 500 women who had been through the Family Court after separating from an abuser – 83 percent reported that the Family Court treated their abuser as “safe.”
Backbone Collective co-founder Deborah Mackenzie says that “It has become patently clear to us, after hearing hundreds of women’s experiences of the Family Court, that even though women initially approach the Family Court for protection, their lives and those of their children are made less safe as a result.”
The Wellbeing Budget lists plenty of services that will receive funding, but more wraparound services simply dodges the central problem of a Family Court that works to keep women and children trapped in relationships with dangerous men at all costs. The budget does not mention the necessary inquiry, demanded as the result of work with hundreds of women.
This problem of cyclical family violence also links to Ardern’s claim that she wants to address addiction. It so happens that New Zealand men have been increasingly discussing the disastrous effects of their past and present porn addictions publicly. The aforementioned Backbone Collective report, Seen and Not Heard, also shows that approximately 54 percent of child abusers are known to use pornography – it states that porn use should be considered a “red flag for the Family Court.” If porn is a “red flag,” we have a big problem. In 2015, Pornhub, the largest porn site on the Internet, conducted market research that ranked New Zealand fifth among the most prolific porn consuming countries.
The relationship between porn addiction, sexual violence against women and children and social wellbeing should not be underestimated. Pornography is so effective in stimulating male aggression that militaries routinely use both prostitution and pornography to make troops battle-ready. A progressive government focussed on addressing wellbeing, addiction, and domestic and sexual violence, should be addressing the problem of pornography as a priority.
One reason that the Labour government cannot address the porn problem is because porn is filmed prostitution, and the Labour Party continues to support the model of full decriminalisation of prostitution that it passed in 2003. This model legitimises the sex trade by legalising the pimping and the purchase of women, nevermind the fact that prostitution is the “deadliest situation a woman can be in,” that the majority of women in prostitution meet the criteria for a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder, and that 95 percent develop drug and/or alcohol addictions. The government currently funds the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) to the tune of $1 million per annum, and the lobby advises women that a good way of “dealing with violent clients” is to “Try calling FIRE, a passerby will probably pay more attention.” This is no way to tackle the reality or the social origins of sexual violence.
The NZPC is funded by the Ministry of Health in the name of “harm reduction” – this government, and its new budget, does some very interesting things in the name of “harm reduction.”
The Wellbeing Budget includes a $3 million funding boost for “gender affirming surgery.” In principle, this means surgical castration and imitation breast implants for men who identify as women, and it means double mastectomies for women who identify as men. 85 percent of men in the former category do not opt for surgical castration; but practices like breast binding are becoming more and more popular among young women who wish to opt out of being female. The government-funded organisation RainbowYouth has been promoting breast binding among young women for some time. It pays to consider that increased suicidality is actually correlated with transgender ideology. Also, in 2013, there were 2,866 youth self-harm hospitalisations, and three quarters of these were young women and girls. We are being asked to accept the surgical mutilation of struggling young women in the name of “harm reduction” and improving “wellbeing.”
When the Lesbian Rights Alliance Aotearoa (LRAA) formed last year, to advocate for lesbians and object to the pushing of transgenderism onto vulnerable young women, Labour Party MP Louisa Wall published a press release specifically to try to discredit the group. The LRAA recognises transgenderism as a new affront on women, especially lesbians. The trend has persisted for long enough to make it evident that most young women who bind their breasts and opt for double mastectomies because they identify as male, transpire to be lesbian. The LRAA is also fed up with being told to accommodate heterosexual men who identify as “lesbian” into their personal lives and lesbian spaces, but politicians refuse to listen.
The Ardern government’s minister for women Julie-Anne Genter accepts the view that “transwomen are women,” namely that men should be considered female and lesbian if they want to be. This men’s rights ideology itself is making it increasingly difficult for women to gather, make connections and organise around the common struggles we face as a sex. On December 5 last year, the Abortion Law Reform Association held a rally to take abortion out of the Crimes Act, at which government spokesperson for domestic and sexual violence, Jan Logie, spoke. The organisers issued a warning that women known as “transphobic” or holding “transphobic signs” would be “asked to leave,” since “not all people who might need an abortion are women.”
Many women have become numb to the implications of this redefinition of sex that politicians promote and endorse. But this erasure of any real, material meaning to the word “women,” along with the dismissal of our protests coming from at work and in the home, brings to mind a line from Marilyn Waring’s 1988 book, Counting for Nothing:
“We frequently hear from politicians, theologians and military leaders that the wealth of a nation is its children. But, apparently, the creators of that wealth deserve no economic visibility for their work.”
Because of this invisibility, many women are so used to seeing our own lives and occupations as a solitary endurance test in which our responsibilities for children and family take precedence, that we barely realise when our opportunity for collective action as women – not just carers and teachers – is taken away. We expect to be engaged in endless, futile and solitary battles, asking for the help we need to meet our responsibilities, only to meet the same nods and smiles, and paternalistic dismissals.
This Ardern government makes life as tough for women as their opposition did. Their new budget will not change that. It also does not change women’s lives to hear about what a good “role model” we have been offered, or that we need to “channel our inner Jacindas.” All of last year, women fought on the streets, in the courts, and alone at home, for our wellbeing, safety, livelihoods and the children in our care, and we are not heard.
If this budget hype proves anything, it is that it truly does not matter if our prime minister is a paternalistic, dead-eyed conservative man who talks about GDP, or a paternalistic, sweet-smiling liberal woman who talks about “mental health.” Women need radical change to the material conditions in which we live. We need freedom from the tyranny of this idea that because we are supposedly born to breed, care, clean and nurture, we should put our own needs last and we should not make demands for ourselves as a sex class.
Politicians are not in the business of radical change. If we want change, women will need to learn to bring our demands together and make them collectively, in spite of the climate. We will need to learn to fight for ourselves with the same dogged determination with which we work and fight to care for others, isolated into silos within a culture that denies women either economic or sexual autonomy. That’s when we’ll be able to say that “a seismic shift is under way.”