The debate that wasn't: New Zealand's rushed marriage revolution

Carolyn Moynihan
18 April 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Last night (April 17) 77 people changed the institution of marriage in New Zealand from a conjugal union with the potential for generating children and providing them with the nurture of their own mother and father into "a union of 2 people regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity" with the potential for systematically depriving children of their mother or father, or both. All in the name of "love". Starting in August.

Actually, just 17 people managed to do that, because the New Zealand Parliament currently has 121 members and if 17 of the 77 who finally voted for the "definition of marriage" bill had voted against it and with the 44 who opposed the move, this South Sea revolution could have been put down and time taken to properly discuss the whole idea. The notion put about by MPs and journalists that there has been a "fierce debate" on same-sex marriage over the past seven or eight months is sheer fantasy.

The truth is that those in favour of law change didn't want a public debate. They didn't broach the subject in the last election campaign (nor the one before) but sprang it on us through a private member's bill -- fortuitously drawn from the ballot soon after it was introduced by lesbian MP Louisa Wall. Calls for a referendum -- taken up by New Zealand First, a minor party in the government, and by a few other MPs -- were rejected by the majority in the House on grounds that include: it would be difficult for people to exercise an informed vote (of course, if you won't give them time to be informed) and "minority rights issues" should not be the subject of a referendum (even though no-one has shown us how people incapable of marriage can have a right to it).

What many politicians appear to want most of all is to show that "we are modern/tolerant/compassionate too". This applies to the several MPs whose first -- and last -- word on the subject was "It won't affect my marriage" or some similar statement. Prime Minister John Key led the way here and other National ("conservative") members followed suit. Key himself took his cue from Barack Obama, declaring his support for gay marriage the day after Obama announced his, and also from British Prime Minister David Cameron who nailed his rainbow colours to the mast some time ago, causing a mutiny in his Conservative Party's ranks.

The refusal of NZ politicians to give any real thought to the issue has been the most frustrating aspect of the process. At the moment of final defeat last night one National MP mournfully said, "What we should be discussing is what marriage is and what it is not." Yes, that is precisely what has not been thoroughly discussed. Before marriage can be claimed as a right we have to know what it is. Claims that it is not essentially about conjugal and procreative love but just about "love" have not been defended with intellectual rigour but only with sentimental appeals to the anguish of individuals who don't feel recognised and so on.

Philosophical discussion in the media has been almost zilch (Rex Ahdar's piece is one exception). There are few independent think tanks in this country and academics seldom address moral issues. Opposition has focused too much on personal religious faith and protecting the conscience rights of ministers and other marriage celebrants. Children's rights and interests (and the bill in effect formalises a situation in which same-sex couples can already adopt and use reproductive technology) have been scandalously neglected.

Furthermore, most of the MPs who voted against the bill never came to the House to explain their opposition, presumably because they couldn't or thought the game was already lost. Only three of them spoke last night.

But the game wasn't lost until they gave it away. Despite mantras about public opinion "evolving" and "a sea-change" in attitudes to gay relationships, New Zealanders have far from made their minds on this issue. Although an opinion poll in the middle of last year put public support at 63 percent that figure has fallen steadily to below 50 percent; a March poll which asked whether marriage should be between a man and a woman, or changed to allow same-sex couples to marry, showed 48 percent for the first option and 49.6 for the second. Informal polls have tended to show significant majorities against same-sex marriage.

An online poll in the NZ Herald today shows only 45 percent support for last night's vote, 44 percent against and 11 "don't cares". A poll taken on the Campbell Live TV show just before the debate last night, however, showed a whopping 78 percent against the "marriage equality bill" (note the wording) and only 22 percent for it. The 17,000 votes sent in were the second biggest poll return ever for NZTV3, said surprised show host John Campbell.

The longer Kiwis have had to think about the steaming great contradiction which is "same-sex marriage" the less convinced of its validity they have become -- but time is precisely what most MPs did not want to give us. Hopefully, this has made enough people angry enough to teach the pollies a lesson at the next election.