What power the female vote?

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 08:49 14/07/2014
paid parental leave
MARION VAN DIJK/Fairfax NZ
TOUCHSTONE: The Labour Party has identified extensions to paid parental leave as a policy area where it can try to win back the support of women voters from National.

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David Cunliffe was roundly clobbered over his apology to women's refuge for being a man. But maybe he was on to something.

Labour was bulletproof for years thanks, in large part, to Helen Clark's popularity with female voters.

Once women fell out of love with Clark, Labour began its decline.

What changed? John Key.

National used to have a woman problem until he stamped a softer, less flinty face on the party. The problem had been exacerbated under Key's predecessor Don Brash. Women took their cue from the fact that Brash was too hardline even for female members of his own caucus - Katherine Rich and Georgina te Heuheu were both dumped from Brash's front bench for opposing his direction he was taking National.

But since Key's arrival, National has had broad appeal across women and men.

A study by Victoria University's Hilde Roff showed there was little difference in how men and women cast their party vote in the 2011 election. That bucked a modern global trend of women being more likely to support Left-wing parties, Roff said.

But could National be courting a seven-year itch?

The latest Stuff.co.nz/Ipsos polls showed women were still nearly twice as likely to vote for National than Labour, but a small gender gap seems to be appearing, with women now marginally more likely to favour Labour than men.

Labour has been aggressively pursuing the female vote by rolling out policy in areas like education.

Labour MP Sue Moroney, whose bill extending paid parental leave eventually forced National to counter by increasing leave to 18 weeks, said she had run across people - men and women, parents and grandparents - who said it would influence how they voted.

Moroney said it was the sort of issue that reflected a shift in the debate around what influenced women when they got into the polling booth.

Her bill extends paid parental leave to 26 weeks - an important marker, Moroney said, because it supported mothers who wanted to breastfeed for the first six months of their baby's life.

"The difference in debating paid parental leave now as opposed to 2002 [when the scheme was first introduced], is that the ground has moved substantially in terms of people understanding it is important as a family-friendly measure," she said.

"In 2002 it was probably debated along the lines of a workers' rights agenda and the rights of women to pursue their careers, so it was seen very much in that context. This time around the debate has been around the benefit to children."

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That was important to Labour because it also put some stakes in the ground about what the party stood for.

"It tells people a couple of key values about the Labour Party," Moroney said.

"It tells them we are prepared to prioritise supporting families. And it tells them we are a forward-looking party, that we are working on prioritising investment in the country's future, so investing in things that might take a little while to reap the benefits from, such as paid parental leave."

Moroney believed that was why some of the debate had got personal.

National's Maggie Barry sparked a storm on social media after suggesting Labour's Jacinda Adern was ill-qualified to talk about paid parental leave because she did not have any children.

"Every time this bill has come into the debating chamber it's turned into quite a vicious debate because the politics are so raw," Moroney said.

"It's become controversial because of what it demonstrates to the wider public about the values of the Labour Party and that's why the National Party have been so angry about the bill."

National's Paula Bennett, one of three women on the Government's front bench, said she got "brassed off" with the Opposition notion that National doesn't "get" women or families.

"I suppose because I spend a lot of time with my Cabinet, and I sit in that room and I see people like Steven Joyce and Jonathan Coleman and Nathan Guy and Simon Bridges, to name a few, who have all had children while they were in Parliament," she said.

"And actually they care as much about family issues as I do and yes, they've got strong wives - trust me they've got strong wives - who are most certainly on an equal footing to them.

"They can contribute to policies that may be of more interest to women as equally as any one else can."

As Social Development Minister Bennett has focused on vulnerable young women in particular as one of the biggest issues affecting women that needs to be confronted.

Lowering the rate of teen pregnancies and getting more sole parents back into the work force has been her yardstick for success.

"We have literally over a 30 per cent drop now in the number of births to teens and that to me is one of the great accomplishments of [National's] time and I don't take all credit for that, I don't do that for votes but it's the right thing to do.

"So much comes from the confidence of our girls - for them seeing there is a path for them in New Zealand to accomplish great things, and that getting pregnant young is not necessarily the only path for them."

Bennett has also commissioned research on girls in the 10 to 13 years age group because she recognised a huge gap there in policy development and government thinking.

"While they were by no means comprehensively covered, there were a lot more programmes for boys, on how they could connect with their culture, and on mentoring for boys, and I felt we had turned a bit of a corner," she said.

"We knew what the key components of the programme for actually getting boys who were going off track on track.

"I didn't see the same amount of work going into girls so I have consciously made every effort in policy in doing that over the last four to five years."

She worried some girls were falling by the wayside due to a lack of strong role models and having someone to teach them - "what it means to be a woman in this country and how you can be that women".

While she didn't like to pigeonhole some policies as feminist issues, she did see women voters prioritising some issues differently to the way men might.

"Without stereotypying, there is a more caring aspect to [what motivates women]," Bennett said.

"I most certainly think that women think of children more. So they care that policies include children and families and provide support for them. And I do think they care more about those that are struggling than men." 

Join us to celebrate the Women of Influence finalists at a gala dinner at SkyCity in Auckland on Wednesday, October 8, where the 2014 winners will be announced. Tickets cost $220 + GST, or $2000 + GST per table of 10.Tickets available from Stuff.co.nz/WOINZ or Westpac.co.nz/womenofinfluence.

For any award enquiries contact Nicola Fenwick: nicola.fenwick@fairfaxmedia.co.nz.

- Stuff

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