Politics

A Controversial Greens Candidate Has Backflipped On Sex Worker Rights After Intense Pressure

After years of defiantly championing the controversial ‘Nordic model’ for criminalising sex work, controversial Greens candidate Kathleen Maltzahn has performed a spectacular backflip ahead of this year’s state election, now saying she wouldn’t vote for it if given the chance.

What is the Nordic model? Who is Kathleen Maltzahn? And why does this matter? Let us catch you up.

What Exactly Is The ‘Nordic Model’?

The Nordic model is a form of sex work legislation based on similar laws in Sweden, Norway and Iceland. The basic idea is to criminalise the clients of sex workers, rather than the selling of sex. While on the surface this may sound like a progressive idea — shifting the blame and stigma away from sex workers and onto clients — the model has had dire consequences for sex workers trying to work and live in these countries.

While it isn’t illegal for sex workers to sell their services, police have taken to surveilling sex workers in order to catch their clients. This has led to wide-scale discrimination, affecting sex workers’ ability to find stable housing, access police, social, and health services, as well as radically reducing their ability to make a living.  

While many proponents of the model say that it has been “an effective tool against human trafficking”, the official data is vague at best. What is clear though, is that those who created the law weren’t overly concerned about the impact it would have on sex workers. Ann Martin, Sweden’s Trafficking Unit Head, once defended the legislation by saying that “of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution [sic], but that’s also some of the effect we want to achieve with the law”.

What Are Some Other Legislative Models?   

There are a few different models internationally, but there is only one that sex workers widely support: full decriminalisation.  

The full decriminalisation of consensual adult sex work is supported as the most human-rights-based legislation by the UN, the WHOAmnesty InternationalGlobal Alliance against Trafficking of Womensex worker organisations worldwide, and the Victorian and federal Greens.

New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003, and a subsequent government review found that trafficking hadn’t increased, the sex industry hadn’t increased in size, and that overall sex workers felt they were more accepted in society. It also found that sex workers felt they had better human rights under the legislation, as well as improved relationships with police and better occupational health and safety.

“Decriminalisation is a form of regulation”, says Jane Green. “It doesn’t mean that there are no laws, it simply means that the criminal laws related to sex work are removed and sex work is regulated like other work and just like other workplaces. So [sex industry businesses] are subject to OH&S and council planning requirements and sex workers rights are better preserved because we’re able to reach out for assistance when necessary – whether that’s to Work Safe, the police, or other services.”   

Who Is Kathleen Maltzahn?

Kathleen Maltzahn has been the Greens candidate for the winnable state seat of Richmond for the last three elections — including the upcoming election in November. But every time she’s run, she has been dogged by controversy because of her support for the Nordic model, which is at odds with party policy.

That pressure on Maltzahn increased on Monday when the Victorian Liberal State Council passed a motion to support the implementation of the Nordic Model into law if the party wins in November.

Since then, Maltzahn has faced questions from sex workers, Greens voters and prominent activists Van Badham and Nic Holas, and sex worker Ava, as to whether she would “vote with her conscience” in favour of the Nordic Model (which we’ll explain in a second), as she had previously stated she would.

But in a statement to Junkee, Maltzahn has now confirmed she will toe the party line and abandon her long-held position: “If I am elected to state parliament. I won’t be voting for the Nordic model, including if the Liberal Party introduces it. Their agenda is anti-women and I have spent my career fighting for women’s rights,” She said.

This is a major backflip for Maltzahn, who is the founder of Melbourne organisation Project Respect, which advocates to the state and federal government for the establishment of the Nordic or ‘Swedish model’ of sex work criminalisation, in the form of an “Australian Sex Buyers’ law”.

“Kathleen founded an organisation that has consistently argued against the rights of sex workers, and argued over the voices of sex workers and obviously to people in our community that’s very troubling”, says Jane Green, a Victorian sex worker and the media spokesperson for Vixen Collective. “She’s arguing for policy… that harms sex workers and reduces our access to outreach, health and importantly, police services when we have issues with our work, and reduces our human rights”.  

Kathleen Maltzahn’s Changing Positions On Sex Work 

During Maltzahn’s first election campaign for Richmond in 2010, she expressed support for the “decriminalisation of the sale of sex work”. While this sounds on the surface like she supports the party policy of full decriminalisation, in reality specifying that she only supports the “sale” of sexual services, meant she supported the Nordic model.  

In a 2014 interview with Jane Gilmore for the ABC during her second campaign, Maltzahn stated that she would vote in favour of the Nordic model if the opportunity arose. “I would vote with my conscience which would put me in conflict with my party,” she said.  

In September last year, Maltzahn was preselected by the Yarra Greens to run again as the candidate for Richmond. She explained in an interview with Junkee earlier this year that when she applied for probity (a process that all candidates go through, where they must disclose any personal positions which differ from party policy) that she “disclosed, as I did previously, that I don’t agree with the [party] position on decriminalisation”.  

In the same interview earlier this year, when asked about her position on sex work, Maltzahn stated that “broadly a critique of the sex industry that says its problematic”, but then went on to argue that “I can’t find any ethical backing for criminalisation, but I think decriminalisation, legalisation and the Nordic Model are all ethical positions to hold”.   

But then earlier this week when the Victorian Liberals passed a motion to support the Nordic Model, a storm erupted on social media over Maltzahn’s history as a pro-Nordic Model campaigner.

Finally, when questioned again by Junkee this week, Maltzahn changed her tune, stating that she would not vote in support of the Nordic Model if the Liberals brought a bill before parliament.

Is It Too Late?

There’s one group that’s unlikely to believe Maltzahn’s backflip on sex work policy, and it’s Victorian sex workers.

“Maltzahn’s current comments on not voting to support the Nordic Model, in light of being a long-term proponent of it and having previously publicly stated she would vote for the Nordic Model, seem disingenuous at best. How believable is it when she calls out the Liberals for being ‘anti-women’ for supporting the Nordic Model, when that’s also the law she believes in?,” Jane Green told Junkee. 

It’s also worth noting that if elected, Maltzahn would still be allowed to vote with her conscience to support the Nordic Model. The Victorian Greens constitution clearly states that in “rare or special circumstances where the views of an elected Member are in conflict with the Greens’ policy, then that elected Member may vote according to her or his conscience”.

All Maltzahn would would have to do is submit an explanation to State Council. There is nothing to stop her from changing her mind again.  

“One thing that this issue shows surely”, said Maltzahn earlier this year, “is that I’m not someone who will change my mind, if I think that I’m doing the right thing”.

Adele Perovic is a Brisbane-based actor and freelance journalist. She’s been published in Crikey and New Matilda.