Abortion debate shows best of politics, which is why Peters' games are so jarring

Honesty and candour are rare and valuable commodities politics, so just as our actual stock market has ebbed and flowed this week, it’s been a volatile day today for New Zealand’s political exchange.

Watching some of the speeches in parliament today as politicians from across the House wrestled with the first reading of the Abortion Legalisation Bill, it felt like a day of honest trading and true measures. As National’s Judith Collins said as she rose to support the bill, conscience votes weigh heavy on MPS - as do the thousands of emails they have received in recent days - but it also brings out the best in our politicians.

Despite some small attempts to stretch the truth about the nature of the reforms, It’s hard to disagree. The MPs I saw spoke openly and honestly, many in tears. Collins herself told of how her mother – aged 39 when she was pregnant with Collins – was urged to abort what was going to be her sixth child. She took the risk and choose to forge aheads. Collins got the obvious gag in before anyone else could, acknowledging others since have wished her mother made a different decision, but it was a rare moment of levity amongst a list of very personal and heartfelt stories.

Speaker on both sides of the debate spoke with integrity but respect, and given that both see it in different ways as a life and death debate based on fundamental human rights, that’s admirable.

We live in a time when civil debate is perhaps the most precious things on the political stock market (it’s too ironic to compare it to a Facebook share, but that metaphor is kinda hanging there…).

Trading heavily on the floor of the political stock exchange today was New Zealand First, who brought out some of the best and worst of our parliamentary life. Minister Tracey Martin laid bare the game-playing by her own team (she’s clearly and rightly cross), saying that since she started negotiations with Labour’s Andrew Little on this bill last December, they never once mentioned the desire to take it to a referendum. Until this week. She obviously felt betrayed.

It again doesn’t paint Little in a great light, as patient as he is being. ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me’, the old saying goes. Little thought he had New Zealand First’s support for three strikes law last year before the party left him hanging without the numbers. That blatant power play left Little looking foolish. You’d have thought, then, that one lesson he’d take from the experience would be ‘never let it happen again’. Yet what Martin and Little have both said is that the possibility of a referendum never came up in negotiations. Never. Given it’s New Zealand First policy, that’s remarkable. While it’s dirty pool from NZF to play that card at this late stage, Little must also be kicking himself he didn’t wrangle some clarity from his coalition partner sometime in the past six months.

But on a day when politics was washed clean with rare sincerity, it was NZF leader Winston Peters who was left to look most silly of all. It’s unusual for Peters, but he missed the tone of events completely, with the decency of the debate making his crass politicking look all the more crass.

Peters took to Australian TV to have a moan about the abortion bill stoush between his party and Labour. His comments were not only insincere, they hoisted him on his own petard. Consider what he said:

"You should pay attention to other parties' policies. I know what their policy is. They campaigned on it. We didn't. Did it [abortion reform] come up in our coalition talks? No it didn't.

It wasn't part of our coalition agreement, so why is it there? The fact that we're prepared to accept that they've put it there is a matter of good faith on our part.

"If anyone got blindsided, it was us. But we didn't get upset or have a hissy fit, as some do in politics."

So if you unpack Peters’ comments, he’s mocking Labour saying they cannot claim to be blindsided because calling for a referendum is there in New Zealand First policy. But then he claims he was blindsided because it didn’t come up in coalition negotiations.

The obvious reply to him is to say, “you should pay attention to other parties…”.

Jacinda Ardern announced her commitment to decriminalise abortion on the Newshub election debate, one of the most watched events of the campaign. You’d have to have been living underground to not know Ardern’s personal commitment to this policy, so to imply he was blindsided or because it hadn’t come up in coalition talks he thought it might not happen this term, is rank hypocrisy. Today of all days, it jarred.

The vote this evening, however, potentially makes the rest of the debate easier for some of the most conflicted. A majority of 94-23 is a wider margin than expected and means questions of referendums and torn undecideds having the deciding votes have largely been diminished. It’s hard to see this not passing.

It perhaps remains hardest for National leader Simon Bridges, who is politically damned to some degree however he votes. His vote at subsequent readings will speak not just to his conscience but to the values his version of National wants to stand for. Already those are muddied and reflective of his predecessors more than of his own convictions.

But if he votes against (as his voting record on conscience issues and his personal values suggest he would prefer) he undermines the women’s vote that was so critical to National’s majority over the previous three terms. John Key – from anti-smacking to those welfare increases – was always alive to those uncommitted middle class women voters he needed to keep out of Labour’s clutches. On the other hand, if he votes for, he plays into Peters’ hands and allows New Zealand First’s disruption of the bill this week look like the closest thing to outright opposition.

Perhaps Bridges’ best play is to look to the honest, conscientious speeches in the House today and – OMG – genuinely vote his conscience. It may help him find a public skin he looks comfortable in.

Either way, it looks tonight as if Labour and Ardern have a rare moment in which they look like the transformative government they promised to be. Think back to that election debate. I was in the audience that night and Ardern’s promise was the most dramatic moment of the night. I described it as “electric” and continued:

It's a clear symbolic line between the older man [Bill English] and the younger woman. Indeed, the young woman sitting across from us at the debate lit up at that moment.

Politically, again, the abortion draws a clear comparison between her and her competitors, Bridges in particular. This is strong ground for her and her political stocks are up tonight.

In truth, while our actual stock market has been up and down this week, our political stocks looked healthy today, whether or not you were buying it all.