• Christine Fletcher
Women's Affairs

Rose Gardens Lounge, 89 Gladstone Road, Parnell, Auckland

Good Morning

As a proud Aucklander, it is wonderful to be with a group of such dynamic Pacific Island Auckland women who meet regularly together for support, information sharing and to forward your visions - for yourselves, and your people.

I know you will understand what I mean when I say how much more powerful we women are working as a team be that, as business women, mothers or just friends. The energy created by bouncing ideas off each other really helps us to focus and keep going.

In an official capacity I am here this morning to talk to you as Minister of Women's Affairs. I think Women's Affairs could be one of the most exciting portfolios - for every policy, every decision impacts one way or another on women - that can also be somewhat daunting in terms of work load, but I find it incredibly inspiring when I stop to think of the difference that might be made for New Zealand women in getting the right policy mix and strategies going for women.

MMP has been good for women - we have more women politicians in Parliament than ever before. For too long we have allowed men to speak for us, to decide what is best for us - often without even asking us (and I know you'll agree with my opinion on where that male intuition has got us to date!).

So, for the first time in our history we have a real opportunity for women in Central Government to make a difference, not only to the culture of Parliament, but to society as a whole.

For the first time Parliament now has a cross party Women MPs Committee, which includes women from five different political parties (it's a tricky one for poor old Peter Dunne in United!).

Naturally we don't all agree philosophically on every issue. However what is encouraging to me is that on the issues where we can find common ground as women, we are working in a consultative way to progress issues such as superannuation and matrimonial property. It is not acceptable any longer for men to think that the only perspective of value is theirs and that that's good enough for all of us. Women in Parliament are making a difference.

Women have so much to offer our society. We understand the pressures of a working environment, if not directly in a business sense, then through the pressures of managing a home and a family. We also understand how to live with compassion and caring for others is fundamental to our way of life. This can't be such a bad way to run a Government or a country.

I think one of our strengths is in finding the common ground on which to move issues forward rather than focusing on the differences. We can see this when we look at relative extremes uniting for a common cause, such as the church, Feminists against pornography, the CTU and the Employers Federation against compulsory superannuation, or the church and the community in wanting a drop in abortion rates.

This is true also of cultural differences. I would not pretend to stand here and say I know what it is to be a Pacific Island woman, but I do know what it is to be a woman and the enormous frustrations in achieving everything for our families, our work and ourselves. We all want what is best for our family and our community.

So I can advocate on your behalf as a woman, but not as a Pacific Islander. This is where you have a role in society, to ensure the needs of your culture are taken into account.

And it is on this basis that I would like to talk to you this morning.

One of the issues that really motivates me politically is the development of appropriate social policy for New Zealand and how that fits into the economic framework of our country. Social and economic policy cannot exist in isolation from each other.

I have felt a sense of deep frustration that over the past twenty years that no Government was willing to take on the challenge of redefining the role of the state, particularly within social policy. The boundaries between an individual's responsibility and that of the states, in my eyes anyway, are very blurry.

It is my personal view that before we ever embarked on a process of economic reform, it was essential to put in place a process to define both the responsibility of the state was and the individuals. By failing to undertake that process we have inhibited the state exiting from areas where it is appropriate to encourage personal responsibility and vice versa.

We have hung on to the old labels and concepts such as left versus right, big Government versus small Government, targeting versus universality, and liberal versus conservative. Certainly the lines between political parties and what they stand for have blurred and our thinking needs to catch up with the reality.

And what do these labels mean in political terms these days and in view of international trends. I suggest not much to our young people and as a consequence it is very hard to encourage them to put a value on democracy, let alone become involved in its processes or to even see that it has an influence on their lives. So why haven't we addressed this issue before now? Well I suspect it was all a bit too hard and so we looked at it in a superficial way rather than at its core. Rather than leading the way into the next millennium with a balanced mix of economic and social reform we continued to react in an ad hoc way, looking to design social policy while endeavouring to keep the tax base under control.

Accordingly, Governments have failed to design our policies from a principle base.

Twenty years of this sort of approach to social policies has not achieved meaningful outcomes. Meaningful for our quality of life. Certainly not meaningful messages and signals to our young people and I believe what we are experiencing now is a logical consequence of not having clearly defined the state's role in our society.

Also I think there is a sense of dislocation by a lot of people where they see what Government is doing and feel that it doesn't affect them.

I believe the debate of early next century will be about quality of life issues. The focus is already moving from economic stability to social cohesion, and to keep up we need to re-evaluate where the state should be. If we are to contain expenditure, should we only target sectors of the population most at need or should we be endeavouring to reprioritise and target social policy in a more inclusive and rewarding way so we can let people get on with their lives.

As part of this I want to see women empowered towards economic independence. I want to see them being able to take on responsibility for themselves, rather than disincentives that only serve in the long run to keep women dependent on men or the state. I want to see more support for families and relationships and we must support women as mothers and carers on behalf of the rest of society. I don't believe we have got it right yet.

What I want to see is a reprioritising in state expenditure and I suppose to try and find some new, new age, jargon of my own. I suppose it might be something like targeted universality. It is important, I believe, that areas such as health, education and law and order include a universal component.

For example, the recent initiative to fund GP visits for children under six is, in my opinion, real progress in the area of Government defining its responsibility for social policy for the well being of the country, both socially and economically, under the concept of targeted universality. Being smart about our policies and investing in areas where we can make the most difference for the whole community.

We all know that pre-school children get sick more than any other children's age group. And we also all know that if we look after our children's well being, we are looking after the country's well being.

Vicki Buck, the mayor of Christchurch, has implemented an interesting initiative called the Children's Strategy. She works on the philosophy that if the community is safe for children then chances are its safe for everyone. Not rocket science but doesn't it make sense.

So, Government looked to see where in children's health we could make the most difference. For those of you with children, I will guarantee that most, if not all, of you will have faced the dilemma of whether your pre-schoolers illness warrants the cost of going to the GP. What a difference when now you will only have to consider, are they sick enough to warrant going to the doctor and you can err on the side of caution, without the very real worry of the cost. It is also a real issue here in Auckland of children presenting in Accident and Emergency departments without having presented to a GP first, and only coming to A&E once the child is clearly quite sick. Being free of the financial burden, it is our aim that we can now encourage parents, and many of them are Pacific Islanders, to develop a trusting relationship with their local GP. This has already demonstrated how we can make savings both socially and economically. At the same time it has empowered people to make their own decisions, trusting that they will know what is best for their children.

I know that law and order is also a really big issue for women. Every woman is entitled to feel secure but we are not winning the war on crime or violence. If this cost was being factored into treasury statistics using Suzanne Snively type economics and being met by the state I suggest officials would be crying for a greater focus on the whole gambit - prevention programmes, police on the street and so on.

Another example is education. Prior to the 80's it was part of New Zealand's post-war dream that every child be entitled to receive free primary, secondary and tertiary education. It was up to us as individuals what we did with that opportunity. But there wasn't then a mountain of social welfare safety nets.

Then, as we commenced the process of economic reform and burgeoning state social expenditure, we needed to re-evaluate this commitment, to contain costs and place limits and accountabilities into funding mechanisms.

But we didn't at the same time define where the state's role should start and finish and where the community's and individuals' roles lay, so we find ourselves with the funding difficulties that we now have.

This has placed a heavy burden on the community, particularly the voluntary sector.

I come back to the philosophy, if our children's needs are met first, chances are so are our nations.

The same is true for women, particularly women as mothers as carers of children.

On becoming Minister of Women's Affairs there were a number of frustrations I encountered. For example the Ministry are restricted by being a policy only agency and do not have an advocacy and monitoring role.

One of the biggest frustrations for me was that they did not have a women's health policy area or analyst. In fairness to them it was largely because of:

a) limited resources and b) that they were in the situation of their Minister also being the Minister of Health, mirrored by an Associate Minister.

Even so, in the absence of the Ministry having a dedicated women's health policy, nor has there been a dedicated unit within the Ministry of Health for women's health.

I feel absolutely passionate about this - health is a key priority for women and so I am especially pleased to be able to announce to you today that as of 1 July the Ministry will have a women's health policy analyst who will be dedicated to policy work on women's health issues.

I have felt very frustrated until now at the Ministry's inability to provide me with policy advice on those health issues that are very important for women such as maternity care.

Rest assured, as of 1 July women's health will be a key priority for me and the Ministry of Women's Affairs, so watch this space.

I think one of the reasons that it has been previously difficult for the Ministry to take part in health issue discussions was because much of women's health was put in the political too hard basket. Look at issues relating to reproductive health for example!!

I have already spoken out on our appalling abortion and unplanned pregnancy rates. This is a real problem for all of New Zealand.

But I would like to talk to you specifically about this issue from a Pacific Island perspective. However, before I do I would like to set the scene by going back to what I said earlier. What I don't want to do is stand up here as a white, middle aged, middle class woman and tell you how it is within your own culture - that would be arrogant and offensive.

But what I do want to do is share with you a problem that we can, as women, find much common ground on which to progress, by supporting each other.

Yes, we do need to take responsibility for ourselves as women and you as Pacific Island women must take your share for your families and friends. I know that much is being done to address this from within your own cultures.

As women we can support each other to identify for ourselves what is best for us and not have a man, be it a doctor, politician or husband tell us what is best for us.

The Facts. A Christchurch study found that by age 15, 8.5% of adolescents have had sexual intercourse, and just under a third of these reported having unprotected intercourse at least once.

A Dunedin study of 18 year olds found that 58% of males and 68% of females reported having intercourse within the past year - of these only 48% of the males and 38% of the females reported using condoms usually or always.

Birth rates for 15 - 19 year old Maori women are 72 for every 1000 women and for Pacific Islands women in the same age group the rate is 62 for every 1000. This compares to 26 for every 1000 non Maori/non Pacific Island women.

New Zealand's overall fertility rates for 15 - 19 year olds - 35.5 for every 1000 women - are second only, within OECD countries, to those of the same age group in the United States - 58.4 for every 1000.

By OECD standards our overall abortion rates are moderate at 14.2 for every 1000 pregnancies. This compares to 27.3 per 1000 in the States and 5.1 per 1000 in the Netherlands. This doesn't of course make them acceptable.

And perhaps most concerning is that on average, a Pacific Island woman will have a least one abortion during her reproductive life.

You may have heard this before, but stop for a moment to think about it.

This means that if you haven't had an abortion you are an exception rather than a norm.

We must reverse this trend for all women, but it is a particular problem within Pacific Island cultures.

One of the barriers that has been identified in addressing the abortion rates within Pacific Island communities is the reluctance to discuss the issue and therefore to bring it out into the open where it can be worked through.

So, that notwithstanding, bear with me.

I don't believe that any one of you believes this is acceptable. I certainly don't - not in judgement from one culture to another but out of concern as a woman for the health and well-being of our society.

To reverse the disturbing rise of abortions and unplanned pregnancies we must deal with it head on.

And in doing so we need to know what the barriers are. And I know you know this.

One of the most powerful and consistent messages of the Pacific Island Sexual and Reproductive Health Conference in July 1995 was the call of Pacific Island men and women to improve the quality of communication within their immediate and extended family, in particular with their children and youth.

The conference identified the need for ongoing discussions about issues related to sex education, sexuality, sexual abuse and contraception. The conference recommended Pacific Island people need to be encouraged to be open minded about these issues.

Another barrier that has been identified as a particular problem for Pacific Island women is a lack of knowledge and skills - which surely is tied up with the reluctance to openly discuss matters relating to sexual and reproductive health. A Ministry of Health report identified that a lack of contraceptive education has been identified as an important factor associated with failure to use contraception in an Auckland study of women seeking an abortion - sexually active young women who have had sex education are less likely to have been pregnant than their peers who had no sex education.

I took some flak a couple of weeks back for supporting the Abortion Supervisory Committee's call for more emphasis on reproductive education in schools. Of course its not the whole answer but, if we are to truly achieve a long-term and sustainable solution to this problem, providing our young people with information about how their bodies work and teaching them communication and relationship skills within an objective environment is a vital part of it. This includes giving our young women, and men, with the assertive skills to take responsibility for contraception or to say no - THE ULTIMATE CHOICE.

This is the responsibility of the whole community. The community is made up people just like us.

As I said earlier, I believe a problem to arise out of the Government's previous focus on economic well-being at the cost of social well-being is that most New Zealanders have ended up feeling dislocated from the system and even from the community in which they live. We are all so busy just surviving, making it through the day that women in particular don't even see the barriers stopping us from fully participating in all of society. We have developed an exclusive rather than inclusive community of Government. And that is not the way women prefer to operate and yet we have bought into it through our own inaction.

If women are to capitilise on the consultative and inclusive concepts of MMP we must form alliances with each other in the areas of common interest - and we don't have to look very far to find those surely!

We must listen and advocate for each other. It is OK for us to stand up and voice our opinion.

Somehow in the financial focus of recent decades we have distanced ourselves from being involved. Where has the passion of the 1970s feminists gone? Are we too busy just coping with life.

If we are to make a difference we must accept that it is OK for women to be activists. Actually, its more than that - if we are to make difference we MUST be activists.

It saddens me that so many women, in my experience, have become issue focused, so intent on the woe-is-me, I have suffered by the system syndrome. I don't deny the issues nor not feel any compassion for them, but I make no apology for saying it is a victim mentality. We rail against the system that we have no involvement in. Its a cliché but it is no less true. You cannot change the system from the outside.

So I want to leave you this morning with the thought - what are you doing about it - for women, for Pacific Island women.

You know what needs to be done about the abortion rates in your community - but talking to each other about it, lamenting how terrible it is, will change nothing.

One way or another you have to work within the system. You can do this with petitions, making submissions to select committees, joining women's organisations, convening meetings, making yourself available for nomination onto government boards and committees, joining a political party, and so the list goes on. The important thing is that you do something.

MMP too has removed yet another excuse for women not to be involved or to be politicians. It is not the male-dominated environment it once was. We are not where we want it to be yet, but we will never get there unless women like you follow the women already there. Women like Pansy Wong - she is just one woman - like each of you - but what a difference she has made for Asian women, just by being there.

We now have four Pacific Island male MPs, but where are your women in Parliament - who is representing you?

Please also think about the opportunity we have in the Coalition Agreement for the function of advocacy and monitoring under the guise of a Women's Commissioner.

I have since proposed that before we jump into setting up a women's commissioner, we set up a transitional women's council - we are yet to find the best title for it, but essentially it will have the ability to monitor Government initiatives and outcomes for women and provide Government with a direct feedback on the views and concerns of New Zealand women.

We will be able to learn from this initiative how we go about the next step of setting up an ongoing and formal process of consultation with women throughout New Zealand.

Pacific Island women will be represented on this council - by who? So don't dismiss this as 'oh that's great, I wonder who it will be?'. It could be you or someone you know. If you have any thoughts on this - I would love to hear from you later.

It will be a great tragedy if we look back in 10 years time and see that we wasted the opportunity provided by MMP and social reform that we have NOW, because we got so used to men telling us what's best for us, or leaving it up to the few women in positions of decision making to do it for us.

Truly, its up to you.

Thank you.