In amongst all the huffing and chuffing, the hurrahing and nay-saying, and plain old stimp-stamp-stomping in respect of John Key’s State of the Nation (that is, the state of New Zealand) speech today, no-one quite seems to have picked up on the one significant attitude change in amongst all the dog-whistling.
Ultimately, reducing the number of those on the DPB must be about finding ways of strengthening families, about educating people about the responsibilities of parenthood, about taking a tougher line on the financial responsibilities of non-custodial parents (while improving access for those non-custodial parents), and about acknowledging adoption as an acceptable option, particularly for teenage girls.
However nicely put, the subtext, and it wasn’t so very sub a text in any case, was that teenagers should be “encouraged” to give up their babies for adoption.
Katherine Rich, a woman whose integrity I admire,* was the National party spokesperson on welfare at the time that Brash made this speech. She simply could not stomach this return to the 1950s, so Brash fired her, and replaced her with Judith Collins. Brash was, unsurprisingly, taken to task for his views on the suitability of adoption. It was a bizarre call to make in any case – it was as if he had never, ever read any of the psychological and sociological literature on the effect of adoption, both on the birth mothers, and the babies, especially when the adoption was forced, either literally, physically forced on the birth mother, or forced through economic and social circumstances.
Believe me – I know that there are many, many people who long to be able to adopt a baby. I have been there myself. But that’s no excuse whatsoever for putting pressure on teenagers to give up their babies. Nevertheless, Brash saw that as a viable option.
Here’s what Key has to say about teenage mothers:
A pregnant teen or teen parent might not be able to access a place in a teen parent unit, but could stand to gain a lot from a specialised parenting course.
Teenage parents will be specifically catered for. Programmes incorporating childcare, parenting advice, and tailored education will be developed to meet their particular needs.
The expectation is that teenagers will be given the training and resources to be able to support themselves and their babies, not have their babies taken away. That’s a huge about face, and a huge rejection of the sort of policies that Don Brash stood for.
Of course, these sorts of programmes will be massively expensive. A training programme for a teenage mother is no good if she can’t get childcare. To implement this sort of policy, Key will need to make a substantial commitment to funding childcare as well as funding the courses that the teenage mums are taking. And that’s not going to sit well alongside his commitment to funding tax cuts out of expenditure cuts. Nevertheless, this is a massive shift in attitude on the part of the National party. Will there be any more?
* Rich supported the repealing of section 59, and continued to do so, even when the entire National caucus, bar her, was set to vote in favour of retaining it. That takes courage.