Why did the Muslim sit on the fence? As one of my producers remarked before I interviewed Tim Barnett today, it seems like a great opening line for a joke. Well, the punchline is that we have now legalised prostitution in New Zealand.
Depending on who you listen to, Barnett is either the heading the charge of the Four Horsemen (War following by a nose, then Famine, Death a length back, with Pestilence chasing up the rear), or he is the harbinger of a New Age of Enlightenment. Only time will tell, and it's likely to be a photo finish (end of drawn-out horseracing analogy), with neither side completely vindicated. We will likely see more brothels, but perhaps with fewer workers in each one; greater protection for those working in an open industry, but still many people working in the 'black market', whether by choice or otherwise.
How well the legalisation works (I'm still trying to get to grips with whether it's best described as 'decriminalisation' or 'legalisation'; given that rather than having no laws at all it has been turned into a semi-controlled industry, I think the latter is the better term but I'm open to offers) is going to be closely monitored by a review process which was written into the bill. This is fine, dandy even, and of course we should keep tabs on how well our legislation is working, but you get the feeling that once these Gomorrahic gates have opened, they're not going to be easy to close. It'll be great when some highly paid consultant turns around and says "Now I don't believe you wanted to do that" in five years' time.
Or not. And that's the key. We don't know what's going to happen. In five years we might look back, as Russell notes, as we now look back at the Homosexual law reform bill, or Jonathan Hunt's bill giving adopted children the right to know from whose loins they derived. Unlike those issues (perhaps) the prostitution issue contains contradictory pulls at our morality, even for the most liberal of us. Prostitution exists and always will, so let's try and make it safer for those in the industry, and remove some of the stigma. Not too much of the stigma however, because most of us will retain some concerns with the complete normalisation of the oldest profession. Would we be happy with prostitution being suggested at schools as a career option? Would anyone not be worried if their child came home from school with the line "When I grow up, I want to be a whore"? Will we ever see a time where people have their unemployment benefits cut if they refuse to get on the game?
Probably not, but it's worth thinking about how 'normal' we want this business to become. As political columnist Jane Clifton suggested on The Wire, removing the illegality might also remove the part of the thrill for those men who want to be 'naughty'. A listener put it "Great, now I can tell the missus I'm at a brothel to cover up what I'm really doing!" Dare ya.
Time, as always, will tell. The big vote now out of the way, the country gets down to the nuts and bolts of administration. It's funny how a mammoth issue of conscience and morality one day turns into the headline "Ratepayers will bear the brunt of new reforms" the next.
An interesting aside to the fallout today is that Ashraf, our man in the middle, seems to have royally pissed off the Federation of Islamic Associations, by saying he would vote against the bill, and then abstaining. Choudhary's argument that he actually said he would never vote for the bill seems to lounge comfortably between disingenuous and semantic. Stereotypes permitting, you wanna go flipping the bird to an ethnic group, the Islamic community is probably not the smartest choice. Beeeeeg cajones Ashraf.
Finally, I'll leave the last word to Dulcie, a lovely old duck and regular caller to Radio Pacific. If it's words of wisdom you're looking for, you'll find them at 702AM on your dial:
"What people don't realise, this prostitution has been going on for a long time. There are these places called massage parlours – there's more going on there than massaging – it has been going on there for years!"
"More stimulating talk" indeed.