Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Greg Fleming

If we encourage prostitution we will get more of it

In being the subject of a conscience vote, the Prostitution Law Reform Bill represents something of a rarity in our Parliament. On the odd occasions that MPs are freed from voting along party lines, they find themselves needing to gain an in-depth understanding of a topic they have usually never considered. This can produce curious results.

In 1999, the move to lower the age to buy liquor was made a conscience vote and the lobbyists swung into action. Under the barrage of statistics from both sides of the debate, many MPs admitted to making up their minds at the last moment, not fully cognisant of the arguments.

There was one truth, however, that should not have been hard to absorb — one that the alcohol industry understood well: law plays a major part in determining behaviour. Lower the purchasing age and the market would expand. And, of course, it did.

In hindsight, every MP should have started with the simple question: "Do I want more teenagers drinking alcohol?" If the answer to that was "yes" to any degree, then fine, move on to the debate about the amendments. If, however, the answer was "no", that is how they should have voted.

It did not matter what amendments or restrictions were proposed. Such changes were only going to determine how the market expanded, not whether it expanded.

This is exactly the question that all MPs should start with when assessing the prostitution bill. Do they want more prostitution in New Zealand?

Because in whatever f orm this bill is passed — whatever amendments are made — decriminalisation will see more prostitution.

While many people believe it is acceptable and reasonable for teenagers to drink alcohol, there are very few who feel that way about prostitution. Exploitation in moderation is not a great sell. It is still exploitation.

Many MPs are saying they do not want to see more prostitution but will probably vote for the bill if certain zoning restrictions and other amendments are included.

This is flawed thinking because all the amendments in the world are not going to change the most basic outcome of passing this legislation: prostitution will expand.

Zoning and licensing in various states of Australia have not curbed the significant expansion there of prostitution. In fact, in New South Wales, 166 out of 170 local councils now oppose the law. Experience for them has been a bitter pill.

Since decriminalisation in 1995, by some counts the number of brothels has tripled. Trafficking in women has increased, child prostitution is worse and there has been a marked rise in criminal gang activity.

The same will happen here, guaranteed. No number of amendments will stop that.

New South Wales is not alone. The simple truth is that nowhere in the world where this type of legislation has been passed have the aims of the bill been realised.

Debate on this bill has been underway for more than two years. During that time the mountain of evidence against decriminalisation has continued to build. And so has the line-up of opponents.

When was the last time you saw leading feminists, the Catholic Church, massage-parlour owners, city councils, evangelical Christians, the Police Association and MPs from five parties all singing the same chorus: "This bill is bad law"?

The bill's promoters have argued that the prostitution trad e has always been around and, therefore, we may as well legalise it. I hope this logic is not applied to burglary or assault.

In a public debate on the bill, the representative from the Prostitutes Collective agreed that in a perfect world there would be no prostitution. So, if even the most vocal proponents of this bill would prefer that prostitution did not exist, why on earth would we want to pass a law that will see more of it?

A friend recently delivered an address entitled "The Seven Principles of Sound Public Policy". Principle No 4 was, "If you encourage something, you get more of it; if you discourage something, you get less of it". In applying this to the prostitution debate, one has to ask, "what could be a greater encouragement to an industry currently illegal, than to decriminalise it"?

Yes, the law needs reform, but this bill is not the only option. A far better way is to prosecute the exploit er. Sweden has demonstrated that such an approach actually reduces prostitution. A bill that would do exactly this is already in the ballot.

New Zealand has waited more than 30 years for reform. Let's not start with a backward step.

— Greg Fleming is managing director of the Maxim Institute, a social research and policy organisation.

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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