by Kevin Hague
Labour MP (and perhaps crucially candidate for Auckland Central) Jacinda Ardern announced last week that she will seek to introduce a Member’s Bill to require the Law Commission to update its previous advice on adoption law and draft a bill to overhaul the current law in this light.
Readers may well have heard me talk previously about the Adoption Act. It dates back to 1955, and effectively fossilises the attitudes and values of that time. Greens started looking at this because the Act only permits couples to adopt if they are married, excluding de facto couples (though that has been reversed in Court) and same sex couples from adopting. First Metiria and then I had Members’ Bills in the ballot to change this. However we were persuaded that a lot more was wrong with the 1955 Act, and that total overhaul or replacement was necessary. Most crucially, the 1955 Act treats children as, effectively, chattels and adoption like a property transaction. The law needs to reflect the primacy of the child’s interests and welfare.
Ten years ago the Law Commission produced a comprehensive report on the care of children. The Labour Government of the time passed the Care of Children Act, which implemented the Law Commission’s proposed changes to limited term guardianship arrangements, but did nothing with the recommended replacement of the Adoption Act. Probably this was because Labour was scared of debate around the issue of same sex couples, and maybe couldn’t muster the numbers within its own caucus – six Labour MPs (including three current ones) even voted against Civil Unions, for goodness’ sake.
Because of Labour filibustering on the VSM bill there is no real prospect that Jacinda’s bill will even go into the ballot, let alone be drawn from it, and anyway National’s approach to all bills from Opposition members has been to vote them down at First Reading. Jacinda argues that the purpose of her bill is to put pressure on Simon Power to instruct the Law Commission to do more work, but I can’t see how her idea of a bill could even remotely do this. Instead the real reason for her announcement is its rhetorical value. On the positive side I guess it indicates to the public that Labour does now support adoption law reform and maybe helps to raise awareness of the issue. Jacinda will also be hoping that gay, lesbian and other progressive voters in Auckland Central will also read into her move that she is doing something about adoption by same sex couples. Unfortunately for Jacinda, while I’m sure she is personally progressive on the issue, she doesn’t get to speak for her Party on it, and Phil Goff, along with opposing gay marriage, has also been at best cagey on adoption.
But while it’s useful for the public to know that Labour now supports some sort of adoption law reform, Labour’s unilateral action with the proposed bill will also damage the work that has been occurring to overhaul adoption law. When I withdrew my previous bill I instead set out to achieve the broader reform of law that was needed, and first developed support for and then convened a multilateral, cross-party group to work on the issues. The progress of the group has been slow but, as I have tried to point out to the less patient advocates for change, the best chance of success is a careful process that builds support and keeps everybody on board. Rushing makes reform less likely, by returning the issue to the traditional arm wrestle for political advantage between National and Labour.
What remains to be seen is whether Jacinda’s move represents an abandonment by Labour of the multilateral approach, and whether National will be willing to stay at the table in the face of Labour’s attempt to gain political advantage from the issue. I will be working to try to keep the cross-party approach alive. Otherwise adoption law reform will be off the table for another decade.