New bill won’t “discriminate”, government says

Wednesday 2 June 2021 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Local, National

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New bill won’t “discriminate”, government says
Photo: Sam Sutherland, courtesy of Auckland Pride Festival/21030543

Same sex rights groups are expressing guarded optimism after Government disclosed that work is underway to ensure new criminal legislation will not contain clauses that discriminate against any Cook Islander or resident.

The Government has revealed the Crimes Bill – a proposed piece of legislation that updates the existing criminal code – is currently being reviewed by one of New Zealand’s foremost public legal authorities.

The prospective bill is a sweeping piece of legislation drafted in 2017 that in its current form decriminalises homosexuality in the Cook Islands

The current law says the offence of “indecent acts” between two males is punishable by up to five years in prison.

“My understanding is that the Crimes Bill has been referred to the Parliamentary Counsel Office (PCO) in New Zealand for final draft and to ensure that it does not contain any clauses that discriminate,” said Office of the Prime Minister spokesperson Jaewynn McKay.

The Parliamentary Counsel Office is New Zealand’s law drafting office and writes and publishes the country’s bills and legislation.

The development comes after MPs on Monday granted another extension of six months to a committee tasked with scrutinising the bill and providing recommendations to Parliament after carrying out a series of public consultations.

An interim report prepared by the committee and submitted to Parliament last November claims out of 167 submissions received during the public consultation process, the “majority” wanted the status quo in place.

Karla Eggelton, president of Pride Cook Islands, said the possibility that the bill could enshrine the rights of same-sex couples into Cook Islands law was “welcome news” for the group and its allies, but will wait for the committee to table its final report in Parliament.

“… we remain cautious given the history of flip-flopping on this issue,” she said.

“We would prefer to wait for the ink to dry first.  This means, regardless, we continue our efforts in creating awareness, promoting human rights and equality and providing support and a voice for our community.”

She said the group will continue its advocacy work over the next six months in anticipation of “positive news”.

Government’s delaying tactics in moving forward with the draft bill has drawn continued protests from community members fighting for equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community.

The current draft of the bill does not include controversial sections in the existing legislation, which labels “indecency between males” as a crime.

Nation’s reputation at stake

While observers await the select committee’s final report and the opportunity to review the final wording of the bill, a tourism industry leader says the nation’s reputation among travelers from New Zealand is at stake.

Liana Scott, President of the Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council, said the group’s stance on the issue has not changed since former president, the late Sue Fletcher-Vea, wrote a submission to the committee urging government to remove the provisions which criminalize homosexuality from the bill.

“The Council at the time had received a number of communications from potential travellers stating that they would reconsider their travel plans if nothing would change,” said Scott.

“Fast forward to now, more than a year later, surely being that our biggest and to a certain extent only market is a world leader in terms of human rights and same sex marriage is legal, we too should be embracing the spirit of equality.”