Tense scenes in Parliament as National stands alone opposing conversion therapy ban law

There was tension in the air as National stood alone in Parliament as the only party not to support the Government's law banning controversial conversion practices. 

Under the law announced last week, performing conversion practices intended to change or suppress someone's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, could result in a prison sentence of up to five years. 

But Justice Minister Kris Faafoi has been under pressure to confirm if the ban will apply to parents stopping their children from taking puberty suppressants - medication that delays unwanted physical changes that don't match someone's gender identity.

The Greens, ACT and the Māori Party are all supporting the legislation through its first reading, to then hash out any concerns during the select committee process. But National is too worried that parents could face charges. 

"Under this law, if a mum tells her 12-year-old son or daughter, 'before you go on puberty blockers or other hormone treatment, wait till you're 18', that mum will be breaking the law," National MP Simon Bridges said in Parliament. 

His remarks were met with jeering from the Labour benches, sparking what became a heated debate in the chamber. 

"National believes there must be an exemption for parents. They're very angry on the other side. But I just want to address them quite clearly... There is nowhere in this Bill any exemption for parents," Bridges said. 

"This Bill lacks common sense. It's an ideological overreach. There must be an exemption for parents. We are opposing this Bill until Kris Faafoi does the right thing."

Labour's Dr Ayesha Verrall, a member of the rainbow community, gave an impassioned speech in opposition to Bridges' remarks.

"I listened to Mr Bridges' comments. He didn't really talk about conversion therapy at all. I don't want to talk about the mental health consequences of conversion therapy anymore becuase it seems to me to miss the point," she said. 

"The problem with conversion therapy is just how awful the practice itself is. All people, but particularly young people, want to belong. 

"Young people are forming their identity - naturally, they want to be accepted. Conversion therapy is about trying to erase someone's identity. It is about saying that part of you is defective. 

"Conversion therapy is cooersive, because behind converstion therapy is a threat of exclusion - this part of you is wrong and you don't belong. If we did this to a prisoner, we would call it abuse or torture."

Dr Verrall looked across at the Opposition benches sternly. 

National MP Simon Bridges.
National MP Simon Bridges. Photo credit: Newshub

"Does anybody in this House think conversion therapy is a good idea? A lot of members opposite can't look up right now. Does anyone think it's a good idea? 

"If it's not a good idea, then the Opposition has the opportunity to support this Bill to select committee to address the technical objections. But they chose not to take that."

But ACT did take that route. The party chose to support the legislation so that it could go before select committee, though MP Nicole McKee has raised similar concerns about the law not being clear enough. 

"On the face of it, and with what we believe to be an understanding of the intent of the Bill, we want to support this, and we will do so through the first reading," McKee said. 

"You see, one of ACT Party's first principles is that all people should be owners of their own lives, that we must be free to act according to their own judgements, so long as they accept and respect the freedom of others.

"However, we do have some major concerns about some of the clauses in this Bill, and unless we can get some clarity around raised issues at the select committee, we simply could not continue to support it.

"We have concerns around the effect the Bill will have on families and the discussions that would often occur in the home, when a young family initiates or raises the topic of sexuality, identity or gender choice."

McKee said without clarity from Faafoi, the only place to look for it is the regulatory impact statement, which she said has implications. 

The impact statement reads: "It would be a criminal offence for parents or other members of a family to attempt to change or suppress the sexual orientation, gender identity or expression of children within the family."

Labour MP Dr Ayesha Verrall.
Labour MP Dr Ayesha Verrall. Photo credit: Newshub

The Greens and the Māori Party both spoke up in support of the legislation. Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi talked about how colonisation and European religious values forced Māori to turn against their own whānau. 

"It was colonisation and the imposition of European ideas around gender and sexuality that started criminalising and oppressing people for being who they are, turning us against our own whānau... We need to decolonise ourselves."

National MP Barbara Kuriger said her party is not in favour of conversion therapy practices. 

"There has been a lot of tension this afternoon... and that is understandable... I want to say from the outset of my speech that no one in the National Party believes that there is a place for violent and abusive conversion therapy practices in New Zealand," she said. 

"We support the core intent of this Bill... Our primary concern is that this Bill exposes parents to prosecution."