Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - New Zealanders opposed to a law legalizing prostitution, which passed Wednesday by just one vote, are mystified by the actions of a single lawmaker whose abstention tipped the scales.
Ashraf Choudhary, a member of the ruling center-left Labor Party, is New Zealand's first and only Muslim member of parliament (MP).
His decision on Wednesday night to abstain in a conscience vote on the Prostitution Reform Bill helped produce a 60-59 vote in favor of the law, which decriminalizes prostitution and was firmly opposed by church groups in the country.
No other lawmaker abstained from the vote, which followed three years of hard campaigning on both sides of the issue.
Had Choudhary not abstained, the bill would have failed, as a 60-60 tie is counted as a defeat.
This is the second time he has taken a controversial position regarding the bill. In an earlier reading he was absent, but a proxy voted in favor of the legislation on his behalf.
Choudhary later said that had been a mistake, which in turn led campaigners lobbying against the bill to include him in the "no" camp when tallying likely votes ahead of Wednesday's session.
Parties gave their members a free vote on the bill to legalize prostitution, although in the end most members of the Labor Party voted in favor (41-10) and most MPs of the official opposition, center-right National MPs voted against (6-21).
Bill opponent Judith Collins of the National Party called Thursday for Choudhary to return his salary.
"How can any MP abstain from a conscience vote unless they have no conscience?" she asked.
"It beggars belief that a follower of the Muslim faith has no view on this radical law-change, when it would appear to fly in the face of his religious beliefs," Collins added.
Collins said by phone from Wellington that Choudhary had shown himself to be "a waste of space" in the 120-seat legislature.
She suggested that senior Labor figures, possibly including Prime Minister Helen Clark herself, had put pressure on Choudhary and other wavering Labor members.
Collins said she had heard separately from three Labor lawmakers on Thursday that they had come under pressure to vote for the bill. One who had resisted and voted against it had told her, "I'm going to be on the backbench from now on," she added.
"I understand at least two Labor List MPs were left with the impression that their future cabinet hopes were in jeopardy unless they backed the bill."
"This is absolutely disgraceful," Collins said. "A conscience vote is a conscience vote."
Choudhary, an engineering professor who was born in South Asia, is a Labor "list MP." Under New Zealand's "mixed member proportional" electoral system he owes his seat to his position on a party list, rather than to the votes of a constituency electorate.
When he was sworn in last year he became the first lawmaker in the country's history to take his oath on the Koran.
On Thursday, Ashrof Farouk, president of the International Muslim Association of New Zealand, recalled the unique swearing-in, as he expressed his "shock and disappointment" at Choudhary's decision to abstain.
"I'm not casting aspersions on Dr. Choudhary, but we expected more in this issue," he said from Wellington.
"Really, he should have cast a no vote, because Dr. Choudhary has taken his oath on the Koran [which says] prostitution is one of the abominable sins and not acceptable under any circumstances.
"There is no compromise. I guess Dr. Choudhary should have known better."
Asked whether New Zealand Muslims looked to Choudhary as "their" representative in parliament, Farouk said they did so, "in a way [although] all of his views are not shared by all Muslims in New Zealand."
On the prostitution question, "I don't think anyone who calls himself a Muslim would accept this. It's just not negotiable - prostitution can in no way be legalized."
Farouk said he had spoken to Choudhary at parliament on Wednesday, prior to the vote, and the MP had assured him again that the earlier proxy vote in favor of the bill had been a mistake.
This naturally led him to assume that Choudhary would vote against it, Farouk said.
He had not spoken to the MP since the vote.
Attempts to speak to Choudhary were unsuccessful Thursday, and emailed queries elicited no response. An aide at his Wellington office said she had taken many requests for interviews, but doubted he would have the time to call back.
The Muslim lawmaker was quoted as telling one journalist that he felt caught between his inability as a Muslim to support the bill, and his view that some aspects of the bill were worth supporting. He felt abstention was thus the right decision.
The law passed on Wednesday makes it legal for anyone over 18 to solicit sex and removes the offences of keeping a brothel, "pimping," and living off the earnings of a prostitute. Prostitutes are also covered by employees' health and safety regulations.
Right to Life New Zealand spokesman Ken Orr said Thursday the legislation - which supporters said would protect the rights and safety of prostitutes - would do nothing of the sort.
It was "anti-woman, anti-family and will do nothing to eliminate the psychological damage that is inflicted on all prostitutes," he said.
"Parliament has now given a clear message to the community that it is alright for a woman to prostitute her body and to men, including married men, that it is alright to use prostitutes."
The leader of the small New Zealand First party, Winston Peters, accused Clark's government of focusing on promoting its "social engineering agenda" even while the economy floundered.
"While this government congratulates itself on leading the world in political correctness, red tape and social decay, it is mismanaging our economy to an alarming degree," said Peters, an indigenous Maori politician.
Opponents, who included church leaders, pointed to the experience in Australia's Victoria state, where similar legislation passed in 1994 resulted in a proliferation of brothels, both legal and illegal.
The bill drew most of its support inside parliament from Labor and the Green Party, and outside parliament from groups like the Family Planning Association and a body representing prostitutes.
See earlier story:
Prostitution 'Reform' Bill Passes in New Zealand (June 25, 2003)
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