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New Zealand’s first female prime minister and a champion of women’s and gay rights told an intimate gathering of students yesterday that the U.S. is on the right track towards social equality, but that it will be their responsibility to continue the trend of change.
The Right Honorable Jenny M. Shipley, who served as prime minister from 1997 to 1999, discussed a variety of hot topics that New Zealand and the U.S. are both currently facing—from affirmative action to gay rights—as part of a talk sponsored by the Institute of Politics in the Quincy House Junior Common Room.
Shipley said that, like the U.S., New Zealand is currently debating the merits of affirmative action. But there, affirmative action is not an issue of university admissions with regards to race, she said.
Up until just a few years ago, traces of a centuries-long conflict between New Zealand’s native culture and language, Maori, and the English language still lingered, spurring conflict between those citizens who yearned to modernize and those who chose to hold on to traditions, Shipley said.
In 1994, she and other legislators introduced a massive program to encourage equal funding for Maori and English-speaking schools, so that parents wishing to have their children grow up within the backdrop of long-held traditions felt encouraged to do so.
“We then had bright-eyed 5-year-old Maori students knowing who they were, and feeling much more confident about their culture,” Shipley said.
“It is not a matter of color, but of the whole depth of conversation—of a country’s history and culture,” she said.
Shipley, who led a successful campaign to make oral contraceptives free of charge for all women in New Zealand, said that the affirmative action legislation reflects her belief that lawmakers must enact programs that realize the wishes and way of life of the country’s citizens.
“Your obligation as a decision-maker is to bring your thoughts and aspirations to the table, and then decide where the boundary lies when making a law,” she said.
Shipley said that New Zealand is following a similar course as the U.S. in inching towards equal rights for gay citizens.
She said the New Zealand parliament has been discussing adoption and couple status for gays for the past few years, possibly working its way towards a decision like the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s recent ruling that it’s unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the benefits of marriage.
Shipley said that the high suicide rate in New Zealand a few years ago was largely due to gays’ inability to openly discuss their sexual orientation.
She turned to the group and asked, “Does the legislature have a right to turn away from this?”
She urged students to push for U.S. citizens to become receptive to the idea of a female president through baby steps.
“You have to stop thinking about country. In the end, great changes happen because people take actions—individuals,” Shipley said.
She ended the discussion by urging students to always question what goes on around them, reminding them that laws are decisions that affect all citizens who live under their effects.
“It’s your century, and you as future leaders have the responsibility to ask whether legislative functions meet your needs,” Shipley said.
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