Blog, Politics, Women's History

The New Zealand Experience – Renaming, Rebuilding, and Social Development

Canberra in April, site of the national Labor Women's Conference, 2002
Canberra in April, site of the National Labor Women’s Conference, 2002

WHN Admin.

This paper is the edited version of The New Zealand Experience – Renaming, Rebuilding, and Social Development presented by Margaret Wilson at the National Labor Women’s Conference April 2002 in Canberra. This version omits the end of the paper where Professor Wilson’s outlines work being undertaken by the new Labour Government she represented as Attorney General. She refers to it being ‘too early to attempt an analysis of the government’s performance’. [1] However, relevant to her portfolio were improvements to women’s economic inequality through the Employment Relations Act 2000, minimum wage increases and redefinition of the criteria to apply to such increase, the Property Relationship Act, the amended Human Rights Act and provision for paid parental leave.  In addition, improved dispute resolution in employment and family disputes were being introduced.


Margaret Wilson Photo: supplied by Margaret Wilson
Margaret Wilson
Photo: supplied by Margaret Wilson

Margaret Wilson

Part 2

In the 1960s a group of New Zealand Labour Party women renewed the campaign to form the Labour Women’s Council within the Party A central forum through which women could organise politically and develop a policy agenda which it could take to the people. It was a time of transition within the leadership of the Party and a time when it was commonly felt that …there were no policy ideas to offer. The women knew the needs of women in the communities and were determined to make the Party acknowledge the relevance of these needs. Women’s traditional roles were being questioned and women were working to change them. If women were able to continue this change they needed political support to change restrictive laws, provide resources for rape crisis centres and refuges and to improve health care, educational and job opportunities. Since nobody else was likely to help the women but themselves, it was necessary for them to become politically active.

…we needed an organizational vehicle and needed to be in leadership positions. The much commented on success of women politically in New Zealand today began in the 1970s when women came together to struggle for recognition of their issues as part of the political agenda. The struggle over 30 years means that we can claim some success today, though I would argue we still have a long way to go to sustain within the political and policy systems women’s right to have their experience taken seriously and addressed within the terms that make sense to women.

The Labour Women’s Council had been endorsed by the 1974 Conference and started life at the 1975 Conference. Without this structure, I doubt if I would have found enough positive activity to maintain my commitment at that time. The strategy established by women during the 1970s and early 1980s was quite simple. It involved two aspects, the first was to encourage women into positions of decision-making within the Party organization and to stand for Parliament. The second aspect of the strategy was to develop a policy for women that would be accepted by the Party as part of the Manifesto. It was assumed that with such a policy in the Manifesto there was a chance that it would be implemented once Labour became the government. These two strategies were developed together because it was important to never forget the purpose of political power was not increased personal power, but the implementation of the policy. Policy was very important and a great deal of energy went into its development before it emerged in the 1984 Election Manifesto. Since that election, there has always been a section of the Manifesto that specifically addresses women’s issues.

The 1980s required different strategies and tactics because the issues facing the community as a whole were changing the centralised state control of the Muldoon National Government gave way to the politics of regulation and the market under Douglas and the Labour Government (neo-liberalism).  During this period woman were discovering their own differences and the difficulties of working together. This did not prevent an enormous amount of productive work being done. Although it is easy to remember the not so good times, it is important not to forget the considerable achievements of the 1980s.

Apart from legislative change, which while never satisfactory in itself contributed to cementing the changing roles and status of women, including women’s assertion of the right to be taken seriously. These changes included recognition of rape as a crime of violence and not property; naming sexual harassment; recognising pornography as denigrating women; acknowledgement of the right of Maori women to their own autonomy; acknowledgement in law that someone’s work is undervalued because it is done by women; the ordination of women as Ministers of Religion; awareness of the importance of language, perhaps one of the most important achievements; employment of women in increasing numbers in occupations in which previously there were none; and the presence of women in positions where they were once rarely seen, not only in local and national government, but on the committees that allow the community to function as a community. These are but a few of women’s achievements in New Zealand at that time.

It is also true that during that period the backlash against feminism and women began in earnest. Attacks came from the moral right…As the ideology of the new right took hold through reconstruction of the state – privatization of health, education, housing, justice and personal security, the blanking out of women, as women, from all public decisions became more apparent. It was during this time that some of us tried to develop a new agenda to counter this all-out assault.

The new agenda reflected the reality facing women in the 1990s. The first distinguishing characteristic was increased diversity, in terms of cultures, classes, interests, and a growing recognition that diversity was a positive attribute. Our agenda tried to accommodate the need for diversity of approach and outcome when it came to political and policy decision-making. It therefore became a matter of urgency that all decision-making included those affected by the decisions. Women, Maori, peoples from the Pacific had to be at all levels of decision-making – political, bureaucratic, community, and personal…

The second characteristic of the 1990s was the restructuring of the state and the dominance of market principles in all policy development. Women were not part of this restructuring, nor was their experience acknowledged or accommodated. We were the recipients or victims depending on our position – effects falling unevenly. The greatest challenge was working out our new relationship with the state.  We had to ensure that it could no longer be one of dependency, which it had been characterized. The removal of state support for economic and social infrastructure left many women vulnerable, particularly those with dependent children and older women whose income depended on state benefit.

The third factor we identified was how to reconcile the right to cultural diversity and self-determination, with the concepts of equality and national sovereignty…

Throughout our discussions of the new agenda I found myself being renewed by a reaffirmation of the fundamental tenets of feminism. I found I remained and still remain absolutely committed to women’s right to control her own life, and the concepts of equality, freedom, independence, liberation, and self-determination. I argued at that time that the lack of respect for the legitimacy of women as women, and for our values that come from our experiences living our lives as women, is the single barrier facing women. I would further argue that the ‘new’ agenda we need to develop for implementation in the new century is really the old agenda in terms of goals, but that the means to obtain that goal must adapt to the circumstances in which we live.


[1] Wilson, The New Zealand Experience, April 2002.

Professor Margaret Wilson, DCNZM,  was Attorney General in the Helen Clarke Labour Government when she gave this speech. She was the founding Dean of Waikato Law School from 1990 to 1994 and remained on the teaching staff until 1999, returning to Te Piringa – Faculty of Law in 2009 as a Professor of Law and Public Policy. Professor Wilson has worked in private practice and has had an extensive career in public service including roles as founding member and Vice President of Auckland Women Lawyers’ Association and Member of the Advisory Committee to establish a Ministry of Women’s Affairs. From 1985 to 1989 she was Director of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, from 1988 to 1989 as New Zealand Law Commissioner and in 1988 was Convenor of a Government Working Party on Equal Pay and Equal Opportunities. From 1999 to 2005 she was Minister of the Crown with positions including Attorney-General, Minister of Labour, Minister Responsible for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, Minister of Commerce, Minister for Courts and Associate Minister of Justice. In 1999 she was elected a List Member of Parliament and 2005 to 2008 she was Speaker of Parliament. Professor Wilson was awarded the first visiting Professorship to the UK, taking up the position in October 2010.

Canberra in April, site of the National Labor Women's Conference, 2002
Canberra in April, site of the National Labor Women’s Conference, 2002


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