Conversion therapy practices now illegal in New Zealand after law passes final hurdle in Parliament

Conversion therapy practices now illegal in New Zealand after law passes final hurdle in Parliament
Photo credit: Getty Images

Performing conversion practices intended to change or suppress someone's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression is now illegal in New Zealand. 

It comes after the third and final reading in Parliament of the Government's Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill. The proposed law passed on Tuesday evening following a robust and at times emotional debate. 

While the legislation was destined to pass due to Labour's majority of MPs, it did not have unanimous support among lawmakers. It passed with 112 votes in favour against eight National MPs who opposed. 

Under Judith Collins' leadership, National stood alone in August last year as the only party not to support it. The caucus voted as a block. 

Collins, at the time, declared the Government "anti-parents" over concerns parents could face charges for preventing their children from taking hormone blockers. Justice Minister Kris Faafoi later said it was unlikely parents would face charges under those circumstances.

New National leader Christopher Luxon changed the game and allowed his caucus to vote with their conscience. The problem with that for National is it's now on public record the MPs who voted against it.

Simon Bridges, Simeon Brown, Melissa Lee, Todd McClay, Simon O'Connor, Chris Penk, Michael Woodhouse and Shane Reti opposed it at the third reading. 

Under the law, 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 Faafoi has promised that general expressions of religious beliefs or principles about sexuality and gender will not be captured. 

"This legislation is not looking to criminalise open and respectful conversations which aim to facilitate help and support where someone is wrestling with their sexuality."

The Justice Select Committee received nearly 107,000 public submissions on the legislation - the highest number of public submissions ever received on a piece of legislation in New Zealand.

It will be an offence to perform conversion practices on a child or young person aged under 18, or on someone with impaired decision-making capacity. Such offences will be subject to up to three years in prison. 

It will also be an offence to perform conversion practices on anyone - irrespective of age - where the practices have caused serious harm, and offenders can be subject to up to five years imprisonment.

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi.
Justice Minister Kris Faafoi. Photo credit: Getty Images

Labour MP for East Coast Kiri Allan tweeted about her own experience with conversion practices. 

"At 16, I went through conversion therapy (it wasn't called that, but that's what it was) through my church. I desperately tried to 'pray the gay' away - to be accepted by my family, community and church. My 'illness' & 'weakness' to temptation was etched as sin into my skin," she wrote. 

"It took a long time to shake that shame and trauma. Tonight our Parliament will ensure this practice is banned in our country for good. For our next generation of babies, I am so incredibly relieved. Thank you to everyone that championed this change."

The Greens, who 12 months ago launched a petition gathering nearly 160,000 people urging the Government to urgently ban pseudo-science conversion practises, are celebrating the law change as a victory. 

"Today is a historic day in Aotearoa," said Green MP and rainbow spokesperson Dr Elizabeth Kerekere, after the legislation passed its final hurdle in Parliament. 

"It is the day where the decades of trauma experienced by rainbow communities is recognised, and our right to exist free from torture, coercion and suppression is cemented in law.

"No one is allowed to force people to change because of their diverse sexualities, gender identities, or sex characteristics.

"We acknowledge the many years of tireless advocacy, multiple petitions and protests to achieve basic rights for our takatāpui and rainbow whānau. This day is your legacy."

But the mahi is not over yet, she said. 

"Labour committed to defining sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in this Bill after its review of the Human Rights Act. They also committed to protecting the rights of intersex people with best practice guidelines for healthcare. We will hold them to that." 

The Justice Minister did indeed make that promise during the previous Committee of the whole House stage of the legislation last week. 

"We don't believe tackling this issue within this Bill is the right way to do it. In a wider-ranging review of the Human Rights Act, we believe that a precise definition around sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression can be found at that time, but, as it stands, we don't believe it's appropriate to insert that in the Bill as it stands."

Faafoi said in Parliament on Tuesday evening he felt a "weight of responsibility" leading the legislation, reflecting on how it was a delicate subject that required a respective approach. 

'It is disheartening'

Shaneel Lal, an activist known for spearheading the movement to ban conversion therapy in New Zealand, is not satisfied with the final law change. 

Lal launched a petition which gathered more than 17,000 signatures, calling on the Government to "actually ban conversion therapy" - but Lal received an email from Faafoi informing them that the propositions would not be accepted. 

Lal wanted ACC coverage for mental harm suffered as a result of conversion therapy

The legislation says survivors and victims may seek redress from the Human Rights Commission (HRC) or the Human Rights Review Tribunal (HRRT). But Lal has argued that it's a lengthy and expensive process. 

"The minister isn't admitting that they failed to consider redress and funding for survivors and victims," Lal told Newshub.  

"I would personally never tell a person who is depressed or suicidal to go to the HRC or HRRT to fight a judicial case to get mental health support. He is being willfully ignorant to the dire state of NZ's mental and the fact that young queer people are five times more likely to attempt suicide than non-queer people. 

"This highlights the real failure on the ministry and the minister's behalf to listen to the voices of victims. The Labour Party are being conservative with the conversion therapy ban and support for victims because they do not want to get too far ahead of society but they fail to realise how far society has moved."

Lal also wanted people of all ages included in section 8 of the legislation. As it currently stands, anyone over the age of 17 has to be able to prove serious harm - a condition not required of those aged 17 and below. 

LGBTQ+ activist Shaneel Lal.
LGBTQ+ activist Shaneel Lal. Photo credit: File

"Currently in the criminal justice system or criminal law, serious harm is defined as grievous bodily harm. That is like being stabbed or having your arm chopped off. The only time an 18-year-old can hold the practitioner of conversion therapy liable in the criminal justice system is if they can prove serious harm," Lal said. 

"No one that's practicing conversion therapy in New Zealand is stabbing people and chopping off arms. An 18-year-old will not have any protection under this law because they will simply not be able to prove serious harm. 

"The most common consequences of conversion therapy often include depression and suicidal ideation and it's unlikely that will be captured by serious harm. In criminal law, as of now, there have been no cases recognising depression and suicidal ideation as serious harm or grievous bodily harm. 

"That's the real issue here - an 18-year-old is required to prove grievous bodily harm to be able to hold that practitioner accountable."

Lal also doesn't understand why the Attorney-General, currently Labour MP David Parker, needs to sign off on prosecutions. 

"In New Zealand, police can prosecute in cases of murder or rape or sexual violation. Almost any crime that exists in this country can be prosecuted by the police without the interference of the Attorney-General. We think that should still be the route for us to take with the conversion therapy crime. We do not believe that a politician should be able to dictate whether a queer person gets justice in the criminal justice system."

Lal is nevertheless pleased with the law's passing. 

"It is disheartening to support a Bill that doesn't protect all queer people. I accept that this is a start and we will continue to advocate for changes. 

"Irrespective of these missing details, tonight is a victory for humanity, not just the queer community. All MPs have a chance to be on the right side of history - this is their choice to make."