The National Party’s stance against the conversion therapy bill could challenge its ability to remain ideologically consistent and retain voters, argues Joshua James

Comment: The Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill has passed its first reading with 87 votes in support and 33 against, with the National Party voting against it.

This is despite National initially suggesting it would vote in favour at the Bill’s first reading, saying it largely agreed with the legislation and would support it if it had stronger protection of familial rights.

Its opposition to the legislation is centred on the possibility of parents being prosecuted if they oppose their child’s path of gender affirmation, such as refusing to allow them to take puberty blockers.

It is important to note the conversion therapy bill has both sexuality and gender protections, and National has objections only to the gender protections.

Why then, did it not vote to send the legislation to the Justice Select Committee, where amendments can be raised?

The select committee process allows the public, both experts and laypeople, to provide feedback. It then considers the feedback, and proposes amendments to the House of Representatives in its second reading, and further amendments can be proposed in the Committee of the Whole House.

National’s refusal to send the Bill to the select committee could indicate two things: the depth of feeling in its objections, or politics at play.

Because of Labour’s majority, it didn’t matter which way National voted on this issue, so by voting against it, the party signalled to its supporters, the electorate, and the Government just how strongly it feels about the lack of familial protection.

On the other hand, which is far more cynical, one might consider this position less about concern over the proposed legislation, and more of a political stand.

Promoting family values, or calling for the protection of the family unit, is often used as a tool by right-wing parties as a way of rallying their supporters. Invoking family values is a successful strategy that is often employed by right-wing, or centre-right, parties.

This is especially true for female voters: data from an American survey of voters shows 79 percent of women think family values are extremely/very important, compared to 70 percent of men.

This could be a particularly appealing strategy if we consider that the most recent Roy Morgan poll showed a 21 percent gap of party preference between National and Labour with female voters.

Another way of analysing National’s vote against the legislation is that it’s trying to secure (indeed, reclaim) its voting base in the face of a rising ACT party.

ACT is polling higher than it ever has at 13 percent, potentially capturing a significant number of voters who would traditionally vote for National. By voting against the proposed legislation, we can see it as an act of ‘policy differentiation’ whereby parties adopt positions to distinguish themselves from their competitors.

Often we see parties converge on policy positions they believe will appeal to the ‘median voter’, but will sometimes take positions outside of this to gain an ideological distinctiveness.

Data from the 2020 Vote Compass shows that 72 percent of the electorate want conversion therapy banned – therefore National is not appealing to the median voter. But, considering how similar ACT and National have become on some of these social issues, it is perhaps not surprising that National is seeking to distinguish itself as the champions of the family unit. 

If we take a step back and view the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill in the context of the wider societal reforms – such as proposed hate speech reforms and self-ID on birth certificates – we can gain further insight into the vote against it.

Much of the opposition to these proposed reforms has been driven by a number of non-parliamentary organisations, such as Speak Up For Women and the Free Speech Union.

By positioning itself against the conversion therapy bill in part, National is aligning itself with organisations that could mobilise voters outside of its traditional voting base.

The debate over the proposed legislation can be viewed as one skirmish in the wider culture wars we are witnessing in New Zealand politics. These culture wars consist of debates around free speech, the use of te reo Māori, and transgender rights.

The biggest challenges for the National Party in navigating these wars is to remain ideologically consistent, have a unified caucus, and most importantly, gain votes without isolating its socially liberal supporters.

This will be particularly difficult considering the party’s broad-church approach to politics.

Joshua James is a PhD candidate and a research assistant in the Department of Sociology, Gender Studies and Criminology at the University of Otago.

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