'Sterilise smokers' comment outrage

Cr Bruce Wilson
Cr Bruce Wilson

A suggestion by a Palmerston North city councillor that Maori women be sterilised to stop them smoking in front of their children has outraged councillors and Maori health advocates.

Councillor Bruce Wilson was speaking at the community wellbeing committee this week about a proposed smokefree policy covering the central city around and including The Square.

He said if the aim was to stop adults role-modelling smoking behaviour, and given 41 per cent of Maori women smoked, perhaps they should be sterilised.

The comment drew a shocked response from other councillors, and he quickly said he was not advocating the idea.

He also said it was not something he would say to the media.

However, a Manawatu Standard reporter was in the public gallery.

Wilson yesterday made an unreserved apology for the "inept" way he had expressed his frustration about ineffective policies to reduce the harm tobacco caused.

Maori Party co-leader and Associate Health Minister Tariana Turia said the comments were "absolutely appalling", and the media had a responsibility to report them.

"We have always got to be aware we are leaders in the community and are expected to put aside our prejudices, which clearly he has got, and not make comments like that."

Turia said tobacco was a seriously addictive substance, and she would not stand in judgment of people who were exposed to smoking before its appalling effects were understood and who remained addicted. Wilson had no right to judge, either.

She said she would write to city mayor Jono Naylor about her "serious concern", and expected Wilson would be forced to make a public retraction.

Naylor said Wilson should apologise and formally retract the comments at the next council meeting.

"The view expressed is absolutely, categorically not the view of the Palmerston North City Council."

Naylor said he was surprised and incredibly disappointed, and thought the comment uncharacteristic. "If it was an attempt at humour, it was a poor attempt."

Naylor said there had been some light-hearted moments during the meeting, "but it's never OK to say things like that".

He said the council's standing orders did not provide a course for disciplinary action.

"It's not a breach to express a view, however distasteful and repugnant it is to the rest of us. I think, ultimately, if he is prepared to apologise, we can move on."

Committee chairman Lew Findlay called the comments "absolutely stupid" and said he was surprised to hear them from Wilson.

"I was floored.

"I don't think he meant it the way it came out. He tried to make out it was a joke, but he did say it in front of a crowd."

Members of the public who were at the meeting declined to comment.

Smokefree advocate Chrissy Karena said she would rather focus on the positive moves the council was making to discourage smoking.

National Council of Women Manawatu branch president Audrey Jarvis said that it was "the stupidest joke I ever heard".

Women's Health Collective spokeswoman Jean Hera said the collective was shocked by the comment, saying even if the comment was "a slip", it indicated racist thinking.

"It's hugely hurtful."

Wilson said he would apologise to people at the meeting, and deeply regretted not thinking much harder before speaking.

"I'm publicly apologising, to anybody, anywhere who is offended, and I'm totally prepared to retract in public if the mayor allows me that opportunity."

Manawatu Standard