The marriage equality win has made New Zealand a better place, but here's hoping it's been done right

In my pleasure at the passing of the Marriage Amendment Act I was reminded of an email my Mum sent me a couple of months ago, containing an old black and white photo of eight women and two children. They're seated in a garden. A sun spot blurs the right-hand corner, possibly obscuring another child.

Amongst the group are my Nana, her mother and various great-aunts of mine. But towards the end are two other women my Mum knew as Aunty Bid and Mrs B. They were friends of my Nana's as they all worked together. Aunty Bid's real name was Elizabeth and my Mum got her middle name from her.

As you might already have guessed, Aunty Bid and Mrs B were a couple. But here's the twist. When it was found out they were lesbians, they were sacked. Homosexuality, after all, was illegal.

The discovery of this photo sparked a memory from my great-aunt Daph, who remembers her husband bringing home a workmate out of the blue one night for dinner. She remembers a quiet man who played happily with her children, but one who she'd never heard of and wasn't a known friend of her husband's.

After he left she asked why he'd been invited over and my great-uncle said he felt sorry for him. The guest was gay and had just been released from prison, having served time for homosexuality.

The stories are shocking and sad. They seem to come not just from another time, but from another place. The fact is they are part of New Zealand history. They come from a time when we had it wrong.

I agree with Maurice Williamson, when he says – as he did in parliament – that he respects the moderate voices in the marriage equality debate who genuinely fear for a change to a major social institution.

Their wariness – even opposition – isn't necessarily bigotry, but stems from a fear of change and a deep commitment to the traditional nuclear family. Marriage is a hugely important structure in our society and one that politicians should enter (in a legal and moral sense) only with great and deliberate care.

While I'm sure the bill is morally right, I can only hope that it's been handled well politically. Time will tell. The decision to go ahead with a bill alone, rather than a referendum, was a gamble. It made major change easier to manage in the short-term, but it cut corners.

I'm not a fan of referenda; in fact I think most are pointless and binding referenda are democratically dangerous and at odds with the parliamentary system. Questions are too easily skewed, a significant-sized mob too easily hijacked, money is too influential and so on. But they are appropriate in major constitutional and institutional change. And marriage is a core institution. Changing the social definition of marriage is exactly the sort of thing that society as a whole – not just its representatives – should debate and decide.

To skip that step is to risk a negative reaction and to risk the change not holding over the long-term.

I suspect, as Kevin Hague said, that the time is right and there's no going back on this. But the risk exists given how many people feel disconnected from this decision. The lack of broad public endorsement gives opponents a stick to beat it with.

And if this change is, say, a launching pad the Conservatives use to get over five percent and give National a much-needed coalition partner, what will Labour and the Greens say then? If it gives momentum to calls for binding referenda, will this approach be regretted?

Short cuts may be effective, but they can have unintended consequences. Let's hope not in this case. Let's hope those who fear this change come to peace with it easily, because this is not a social change to fear, it's one to embrace.

My expectation is still that this strengthens – perhaps briefly, perhaps more substantially – the place of marriage in our society as it brings more New Zealanders into the tent.

What I'd say to those who fear this change is to remember Aunty Bid, Mrs B and an unnamed young man – three New Zealanders who paid a heavy price for their God-given sexuality and for their love.

That seems terribly unjust to us now all these decades on, and I'm sure decades from now our grand-children will look back at a time when gay people couldn't marry with the same sort of amazement we feel when we think of sending gays to prison. What happened this week has made New Zealand a fairer, kinder place, and that's always good.

 

Comments (21)

by Raymond A Francis on April 19, 2013
Raymond A Francis

While I agree with your comments I do wonder about your story about the  picture, while you don't say where it was taken, female homosexuality has never been ilegal here or in the UK so it is unlikely that the two were sacked for illegal behaviour

we have a similar family story involving a great aunt having to leave medical training because she had married, the truth of this has not been examined but just because people say it is so does not make it the truth

by Simon Connell on April 19, 2013
Simon Connell

I don't agree that referenda are necessarily preferable in cases of major constitutional and institutional change. Certainly not this one.

First and foremost, referenda resort to majority rule, a dangerous tool for deciding issues that involve different treatment of minorities or disadvantaged groups – as in this case. This is especially acute in New Zealand, as we have no Upper House or Supreme Bill of Rights to balance out majority decision-making. Our main mitigating mechanism is MMP, which is of no help in a referendum. As was pointed out during the debates over marriage equality, New Zealand would probably had womens suffrage much later had the issue been decided by referenda.

Second, you state that “changing the social definition of marriage is exactly the sort of thing that society as a whole … should debate and decide.” Setting aside the quibble that the Bill was over the legal definition of marriage, I don’t think there’s been a lack of debate over this. Since the Bill was drawn, there have been articles, editorials, polls, debates, and more – marriage equality has never been out of the news. It has been the topic of conversation at breakfast tables, water coolers, church meetings, and more. Many, many people made submissions on the Bill. Realistically, I don’t know if we can really ask for much more in terms of a nation-wide debate. I don’t think there’s been a short-cut skipping over debate and discussion.
And, it’s a debate that as, at times, gotten nasty. Kevin Hague recently circulated a rather “fire and brimstone” email circulated to MPs who voted “for” at the second reading. Some of the written submissions were very strongly-worded. People expressing the conservative intuition that change to a significant institution was a big deal that we need to think carefully about, and attempting to set out their reasons for opposing the Bill were in some cases unconstructively accused of bigotry and homophobia. If this issue had been put to a referendum, then these extremes would have been directed not at MPs, but at everyone. MPs should not have to put up with extreme lobbying – but they’re surely built up some level of resilience. Putting this issue to a referendum might have meant that bullying and intimidation had a much larger affect on who voted (and how.)

by Kyle Matthews on April 19, 2013
Kyle Matthews

I'm not sure how we can send a question of human rights to a referenda. What does that mean if the result is 'no'?

There may be political downsides to parliament choosing to make this vote. It may push the Conservative Party up to the 5%. That's life however, and probably a short term impact - come 2017 it will have faded. Any party who wants to put that consideration in front of granting other human beings the same rights as me needs to learn to do without my vote ever however.

by Bruce Thorpe on April 19, 2013
Bruce Thorpe

I reckon no issue is best settled by referendum.

Any major decision is improved by a process of public discussion, with opportunities for written and public debate, plenty of time for those most affected to put their case, and several media committed to giving a hearing to those regarded to be most knowledgeable.

But when it comes to the judgement, the decision making process should not be in the hands of a public gathering, or the minions of some petition gathering movement.

The decisions should best be made by elected representatives  required to formally debate and vote according to their own minds, without fear of favour, after full considerations of all aspects. 

And when the  highlights are available to be mythologised in print, radio and video, the best arguments might even achieve a place in our history,at least for a while.

The best human decisions are made by well informed, empowered chosen representatives.

by Tim Watkin on April 19, 2013
Tim Watkin

Fair point Raymond, I'd forgotten that. It wasn't been illegal for those women to be a couple, but the discrimination would have been the same and would have cost them their jobs.

Simon, your first point is exactly why I don't like referenda. And yes I'm sure women's voting would have played out very differently. Certainly there was no backlash in that case that I'm aware of. However I'm not sure that leads me to the same conclusion. Marriage preceded parliaments and is a deep social custom, not just a law and so is something other, I think.

I disagree that the debate has been as comprehensive as you claim - many people have noted it hasn't been nearly as hotly debated as the law reform in 1987. We could ask for much more debate, and perhaps a personal vote.

Also referring to 1987, I don't think it's been that nasty. And your argument that strong debate over a topic should be reserved for MPs and not the public seems almost undemocratic (though I know you don't mean it like that, you get my point). The people can't decide emotive issues or see through lobbying? Let's be fair, there was strong lobbying on both sides.

by Tim Watkin on April 19, 2013
Tim Watkin

Fair call Bruce. My point is that if anything is worthy of a referendum, it's something like this. But I respect the idea that nothing is worthy of a referendum in a parliamentary democracy.

by Simon Connell on April 19, 2013
Simon Connell

re: whether the debate was comprehensive - perhaps I was erring on the cynical side saying that we couldn't really expect much more in terms of national debate. I do wonder though whether there was that much more to say in the national dialogue on the subject. Different viewpoints were expressed, some minds were changed, some not. Would the debate continuing until a referendum really make a difference in terms of anything other than the length of the discussion? I don't know.
Let me see if I can re-state my other argument. I think that the extremes of lobbying that this particular debate brought out can fairly be described as attempts to bully or intimidate MPs. If the issue was being decided by referendum, that extreme lobbying may instead directed at the voting public (or sectors of it) instead. I'm not sure if that has a healthy effect on (i) if and how people vote or (ii) the public dialogue about the subject.

by Matthew Percival on April 19, 2013
Matthew Percival

The gay marriage saga turned out to be one of the more interesting issues of recent times. The polls were initially very much in favour but for whatever reason support seemed to subside somewhat as we got closer to the third reading.

My theory on this is that it wasn't a lack of support for gay marriage as such, it was some of the peripherals associated with it. Adoption by gay couples for instance. I believe you need more than love as a child, you need perspective and a mono-gender relationship can't provide that perspective. Gay marriage does appear to make adoption easier for those couples and that for me made me stand back and re-assess my support. I'll suggest there were also other side issues which saw others do the same thing.

I also don't believe this was as much about rights as some are suggesting. Civil Unions largely covered that, marriage was merely the icing on the top of the cake in that regard. To me it's more about the "label" of marriage and the tradition of marriage. In that regard we were changing a tradition which has been around since god knows when because we deem it inappropriate for our modern society. Poking ones tongue out whilst dancing around with a naked backside making aggressive movements and noises isn't exactly suitable for our modern society either. Should we ban Maori culture as well?

I've ended up at the same point Tim has albeit via a different path. This issue should have gone to referendum where the people could have their say based on whatever issues and whatever beliefs matter to them. The aspect you get to see in referendum that you don't see in a public debate is the moderates get to have their say.

P.S I'm looking forward to one of the pundit's having their say on the Labour/Greens power plan.

by Andrew Geddis on April 19, 2013
Andrew Geddis

"My point is that if anything is worthy of a referendum, it's something like this."

Why? That conclusion buys into a particular claim - "This change is a major and fundamental change to a pivotal social institution that will forever alter its very nature (for the worse)!" That claim was then advanced by one of the sides to the debate ... those who opposed the change. So saying "we need a referendum" tacitly accepts the terms in which one side is presenting the issue. Why do this?

The response is simply Maurice Williamson's. This is an important change for those who want to be able to marry (but can't), it's a feel-good thing for us nice social liberals, it's another stop on the road to perdition for the comparatively small number of folks who are deeply conservative ... but for everyone else (being the large majority of society) it means nothing at all.

So I guess the question comes back to this - exactly what's the basis for saying "this issue was so important it needed a referendum"?

by Andrew Geddis on April 19, 2013
Andrew Geddis

I believe you need more than love as a child, you need perspective and a mono-gender relationship can't provide that perspective. Gay marriage does appear to make adoption easier for those couples and that for me made me stand back and re-assess my support.

That's a belief. But policy ought to be made on evidence, and the evidence for your belief is not very strong ... and in fact, there's some evidence it is quite wrong. In any case, "gay adoption" has virtually nothing to do with any child growing up in a same sex households that otherwise would grow up in a household with straight parents. So if that really was your reason for opposing same sex marriage, it was a very bad one. I posted on why here.

Poking ones tongue out whilst dancing around with a naked backside making aggressive movements and noises isn't exactly suitable for our modern society either. Should we ban Maori culture as well?

Right. The appropriate way to welcome someone in a modern society is to line up lots of guys wearing bearskin hats and carrying guns. That's how properly civilised places do it.

 

by Matthew Percival on April 19, 2013
Matthew Percival

I'll disagree with you on evidence based policy. For instance there is also evidence to suggest that increasing class sizes does little to curtail education outcomes but saves a good chunk of change. Yet I'm sure you wouldn't advocate larger class sizes.

Please note I don't oppose same sex marriage and if I had to vote on it my vote would be in favour, just not with the same vigour as others. I was merely explaining why I think the polls tended south on this issue.

And please don't take my Maori example out of context. The example was used in a paragraph putting forward the viewpoint (perhaps not particularly clearly) that changing age old society traditions should not necessarily be decided by parliament.

by Andrew Geddis on April 19, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Yet I'm sure you wouldn't advocate larger class sizes.

Why are you so sure? I'm happy to be lead by evidence on that issue.

by Tim Watkin on April 19, 2013
Tim Watkin

That conclusion buys into a particular claim - "This change is a major and fundamental change to a pivotal social institution that will forever alter its very nature (for the worse)!"

Andrew, apart from the final three words, that's exactly what I'm saying. It's not buying into a particular side, but rather my view of the matter. How is changing who can marry not a fundamental change? This is a centuries old tradition being altered. And how is marriage not a pivotal social institution? (Not to mention child raising).

And surely the view that this is major and fundamental change has been advanced by both sides of the debate - why else have the marriage equality lobby fought so hard for it? Why the huge celebrations? Are they happy just for themselves? No, they're happy because they see it as a major social change. Which it is, and good on them.

But acknowledging the scale of the change doesn't determine which side you take.

by Tim Watkin on April 19, 2013
Tim Watkin

Andrew, as for evidence... of course I agree with you, but evidence, especially in the social sciences, does change. A generation or so ago, it was widely held that it divorce was a good option to save a child from a dysfuncational marriage. But research since by the likes of Jan Pryor has shown that in almost all cases the even older fashioned view of 'staying together for the children' gets better results in terms of incomes, education, teen pregnancies and much more.

I'm just sayin' some 'evidence' goes in cycles.

by Andrew Geddis on April 19, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Tim,

Yes, proponents of same sex marriage said this was "a big step", but not in regards the nature of marriage as an institution. Rather, it was a big step in how they were perceived by society as individuals and a group. In fact, their whole point was that by saying same sex couples can marry like straight couples can, this did no more than recognise that their relationships were equally worthy of any residual societal respect that accrues to "married" couples vis-a-vis other forms of relationship. So when you ask, "how is changing who can marry not a fundamental change", you are buying into the claim that the special character of marriage as an institution somehow depends upon its existing man/woman relationship at a deep, fundamental level. Which is exactly the point that was at issue between the two sides to the debate.

Or, let me put it more bluntly. In August, when the first same sex couples wed, the nature of your relationship with Eleanor will change ... how?

And yes, evidence of same sex parenting on children is not conclusive and very well may change. But what do we do in the meantime? Also, as I've repeatedly pointed out, there will be very, very few to no extra children being raised by same sex couples as a result of the passage of the same sex laws. So even arguing a precautionary approach doesn't really change anything.

by Tim Watkin on April 19, 2013
Tim Watkin

This is a rare moment when I think you're completely wrong, Andrew. My marriage to Eleanor changes in no way come August, but the institution changes dramatically.

That's like saying legalising euthanasia would be no big deal unless I was to end my own life. Or that women getting the vote wasn't a major social change if you were a man. I don't have to be directly affected to recognise it as major change to an age-old tradition.

...this did no more than recognise that their relationships were equally worthy of any residual societal respect that accrues to "married" couples...

No more than? For me this act is a major recognition given the years of struggle, equality after centuries of inequality. A group once ostracised can now take part in a central part of our social life. Was the right for a black woman to sit where she wanted on a bus no more than a transportation issue?

But alongside what this means in terms of gay rights, I still think changing the rules around a major social ritual/institution – such those involved birth, marriage, child raising or death – has an impact on us all, because it changes what's acceptable, alters our cultural mores and what is seen as acceptable. Because the law isn't just the law, but an indicator of our collective morality and values. This week our New Zealand's standards have changed.

I'm quite relaxed about acknowledging that without fearing that I'm buying into any campaign; there's no logic that insists that because I see this as a major social change, I have to oppose it. Quite the opposite.

You're right about the few children involved – but if we did fear harm from this law change the number affected would be irrelevant. When we're talking about protecting our kids we say things like 'it's not OK for even one child to be mistreated', don't we? So I'm not won by that argument. But rather, as you say, we should be led by the best evidence available.

 

 

by Eszett on April 20, 2013
Eszett

That's like saying legalising euthanasia would be no big deal unless I was to end my own life. Or that women getting the vote wasn't a major social change if you were a man. I don't have to be directly affected to recognise it as major change to an age-old tradition

Well, that's not really a good comparison. Euthanasia could potentially affect each and every one of us, directly or indirectly, as we or one of our loved ones may end up in a position where we indeed become affected.

Giving women the vote did and still does directly affect men (and women) and how they are governed.

Neither applies to gay marriage at all. Gay marriage has no more affect on any of the straight marriages, past, present or future any more than muslim marriages have on catholic ones.

So euthansia or women's suffrage both have a far greater impact on society and people the gay marriage has and yet neither topic would justify a referendum. (e.g. Switzerland and women's suffrage).

I have to agree with Andrew, the whole cry for a referendum was nothing but a smokescreen, a delay and obstruct tactic by those who were against gay marriage.

 

by Andrew Geddis on April 20, 2013
Andrew Geddis

@Tim,

Well, we'll just have to agree to disagree. But note:

(1) if your underlying claim is "we should have had a referendum on this because it represented a fundamental change to an important social institution",

(2) and reasonable minds (and even if we're "wrong", I don't think you can say Eszett and I are "unreasonable") can differ as to whether it did represent a fundamental change in that institution ... and it still does seem odd to me that the nature of the institution can have been so greatly altered without those who already participate in that institution noticing any difference at all,

(3) then the argument "if anything is worthy of a referendum, it's something like this" is considerably weakened.

And I'll leave it at that.

As for the adoption thing ... whatever. All being married does is legally allow you to apply to adopt. In the case of children already living with a same sex couple, this enables the existing parental relationship to be recognised in law. In the case of "strange adoptions", CYFS and the Family Court have to approve any child's placement (after the birthmother gives her consent for it). So if and when evidence appears that being raised by same sex couples leads to appreciably worse life outcomes for children, then that approval can be witheld on the basis of the child's welfare. And then we'll have an almighty battle of competing social scientists waving longitudinal studies at each other and arguing about the interpolation of cause and effect.

But I'd also note your comment that "research since by the likes of Jan Pryor has shown that in almost all cases the even older fashioned view of 'staying together for the children' gets better results in terms of incomes, education, teen pregnancies and much more." So, seeing as we're all about what's best for kids, when with The Vote be debating an end to no fault divorce?

by Tim Watkin on April 20, 2013
Tim Watkin

Or, given the evidence, the next Geddis post urging a rethink on no-fault divorce? Obviously neither of us think that makes sense. But good debate.

Eszett, but it may be my friend or child or whoever can now marry, which could have a big impact on me... just because it doesn't affect my marriage doesn't mean it doesn't affect me and isn't a major social change. As you included in italics, I don't have to be directly affected to acknowledge a change. It's not all about the individual!

And just because it was a potential stalling tactic doesn't mean it isn't also better process.

 

by Eszett on April 20, 2013
Eszett

Tim, every law may affect you or a friend or a spouse. That per se does not warrant a referendum. 

And why would allowing a friend or your child to marry have a big impact on you? Why would allowing a friend or your child anything that doesn't directly involve you have a great impact on you at all?

Even if it affects a large number of people directly does not warrent a referendum. Otherwise you would have to hold a referendum on every tax law change. And would you want to put something fundemental like women's suffrage to a popular vote?

Now same sex marriage has far less impact on people than any of those topics you mention. If it was done 20 years ago, that would have been a huge change. But with the gradual acceptance of homosexuality in our society the step to marriage equality was a rather small one. 

A referendum is seldom a better process. Bils go through parliament with much larger impact and much, much less public discussion and participation than this particular bill. 

 

by william blake on April 23, 2013
william blake

C, Mr Percival, one of the main reasons I think same sex 'marriage' is a positive thing is the endorsement it gives to adoption or surrogacy, hooray for children raised in a state of love and commitment. boo to you.

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