A year to test MPs' beliefs and political footwork

This is becoming a heavy-duty session for bills that test MPs’ personal beliefs and political footwork: last month, prostitution; next, euthanasia; coming later this year, cannabis’ legal status and same-sex marriage.

Such bills rouse high passions. They brutally divide society, political parties and friendships. Lobbies with fierce, irreconcilable views put MPs under heavy pressure. And, usually promoted by an individual MP, they are typically decided on “conscience”: MPs personally decide how to vote, free of the party whip.

Such bills can also be complex. Tim Barnett’s Prostitution Reform Act posed its question on four planes.

It was a moral question: prostitution is immoral, so should be illegal — or, it is hypocritical to pretend it can be banished by law.

It was a question of social order: prostitution undermines the family, degrades women and by firm action men can be shamed out of it — or, behavioural change is unlikely, at one level it is a mutually beneficial trade and, being illegal, it blurs into the criminal underworld.

It was a practical question of safety: legalisation will bring more women and young men into an unsafe and damaging trade — or, legalisation enables some safety backstops.

It was a political question: the bill was social engineering by a minority — or, it was sensibly keeping up with changing public mores and opinion.

Because MPs could decide the issue on any of those planes, they (and the lobbyists) were often talking past each other.

Piloting the prostitution measure through was a signal achievement (for better or worse) by Barnett — the quiet-achiever backbencher who chairs Parliament’s justice and electoral law select committee dealing with the Supreme Court Bill, the Care of Children Bill and a hot-potato constitutional inquiry to come and who, as parliamentary private secretary to Steve Maharey, does much of the work on the relationship with voluntary and community agencies, in harness with the irrepressible Tariana Turia.

Tomorrow evening another of Parliament’s less noisy MPs, New Zealand First deputy leader Peter Brown, is due to move his Death with Dignity Bill. This will rival the prostitution bill for controversy.

Brown’s bill would permit a person to ask a doctor for help to die. Doctors and divines have already been demonising it.

Debate on this bill, too, operates on several planes.

There is the spiritual plane: life is so sacred no one, not even the person whose life it is, may end it under any circumstances.

There is the moral plane. On one side, taking life is immoral. On the other, it is immoral to force a person to live who is in intolerable pain or whose life is so constricted as to be a burden to that person.

There is the ethical plane. Should doctors, sworn to do all they can to cure the ill, be put in the position where they might feel pressure to end a life? To which some might counter: doctors are sworn to do their best by people in their care and ignoring a person’s wish to end his/her pain and humiliation is the antithesis of that.

And there is the practical plane. Is this the top of a slippery slope which may lead to getting rid of people who have become a burden to others — for example, relatives pressing oldies to end it all? Or is it a matter of common sense: some doctors do it anyway, but informally and inconsistently, so regularise it.

Brown’s bill attempts to deal with practical and ethical objections. It would apply only to a terminal or incurable illness. Two doctors must agree the patient is in that condition or assisted death is barred. No doctor would be bound to carry out the request. There would be a cooling off period of 48 hours, with counselling and psychiatric examination. Undue influence on the patient or doctor would be a severely punishable offence.

And it has a binding referendum built in. The people would decide if it became law. Since past opinion polls have favoured legalisation, a referendum may well pass if the bill does.

Couldn’t that be the decider — the people giving a general steer and pronouncing on the final bill and Parliament filling in the detail? Parliament sort of did that with the non-binding referendum on longer sentences.

No. MPs typically mistrust referendums — witness the government’s refusal of one on the Supreme Court Bill and Parliament’s dismissal of the non-binding referendum on the number of MPs.

So tomorrow’s debate on the first reading will be substantive and maybe definitive.

Brown’s bill is not the end of socially and morally divisive measures. The proposed civil union bill will allow couples of any gender mix to formalise a marriage by law.

That, too, will have the ridigly religious, the moralisers and the traditionalists riding into battle against equally argumentative and dogmatic agnostics, moral relativists and modernists.

Few MPs like taking sides on such searing issues. But they are part and parcel of a society in change. That three have come up in this one year is remarkable.