The popular theory around Parliament is that John Key is voting in favour of the same-sex marriage bill because he’s sick to the back teeth of banging on about “mum and dad” investors, and longs for the sheer novelty of being able to talk about “dad and dad” or “mum and mum” investors. Few issues sort the sheep from the goats at Parliament more fascinatingly than a conscience issue. The results are utterly unpredictable, and Labour MP Louisa Wall’s Marriage Equality Bill has thrown up some tremendous surprises.
Labour’s ordinarily right-on liberal Phil Twyford, whose Te Atatu electorate was successfully represented before him by gay MP Chris Carter, is being bullied unmercifully by the Right because he’s insisting on “consulting his constituents” before deciding which way to vote. And it’s the Far Right that’s pouring on the heaviest moral pressure in support of the bill – the reverse of the trend back in 1986, when National’s hardest-liners arrayed themselves against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, vowing handcarts would be hurtling towards hell if it were passed. Decades have come and gone, and gay men are not queuing six-abreast outside schools to prey on children, heterosexuals have not become a persecuted minority, and Aids has not decimated the population – nor have any of the other apocalyptic visions conjured by the HLRB materialised. We now routinely elect gay MPs, and it’s not even a conspiracy. Or if it is, we’re all in on it. The great thing about conscience issues is that MPs have nowhere to hide. Even the abstention contemplated by New Zealand First’s MPs tells its own precise tale.
What you won’t vote for is just as revealing as what you will. And the consequences of that choice can haunt MPs for years. There are several who still privately rue their opposition to the Homosexual Law Reform Bill all these years later. A handful of no-voters were secretly prepared to vote “aye” at the last minute if it turned out the bill might fail – but were relieved not to have to do so, because the perceived consequences of supporting it at the time were quite terrifying. This writer is ancient enough to recall vividly the night the bill passed, and the change in the tone surrounding this debate is an absolute marvel. That a National Party Prime Minister can shrug and say it’s no skin off his nose if gay people marry, same as straight people, is remarkable progress. On the flip side, however, it’s now the nay-voters who face scary pressure, and that’s not progress at all. Those whose religious faith dictates that homosexuality is undesirable, and that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman, are openly derided. The massed cyber-attack on the anti-bill website, and a recent move to ban anti-abortion protesters from a university campus, suggest we’ve rather overcorrected. It shouldn’t be compulsory to be liberal.
Which brings us to one John Archibald Banks, who may well prove to be a poster-boy for the reverse trend of beginning as an arch conservative and ending up quite mushy. Aside from the fact that he leads a party, or at least the remains of a party, that is founded squarely on laissez-faire principles, which ought to oblige him to vote for the bill without a second’s thought, Banks has for years resisted any of his old urges to decry the differently sexed. Age, experience, fatherhood and sheer metal fatigue have eroded his fervour to the point where he is now not ruling out voting for the bill. Having sat in on one of his beady-eyed anti-HLRB strategy meetings mumble-mumble years ago, this writer finds Banks’s apparent realisation that gay people are not the enemy deeply touching. And if there’s anything that can redeem at least a vestige of Banks’s shattered career before its final drain-gurgle, it would be an aye vote on this, accompanied by a heartfelt speech. The police last week cried off prosecuting him for electoral fraud on the grounds they could not prove he knew about the three “anonymous” donations that should have been declared during his mayoral campaign.
It’s hard to find anyone who sincerely believes someone as sharp as Banks could personally solicit big donations and receive envelopes from the solicitees, and then “forget” about the distinct possibility of a link between the solicitation and the envelope – ie, a donation. John Key let only a couple of days pass before declaring that the law surrounding such donations needed to be cleaned up. That should give Banks notice that his forgetfulness is not forgotten and nor is it forgiven. In the remote eventuality that Banks decides to stand for Epsom a second time, he could kiss goodbye to a cup-of-tea deal with National. He has been neither use nor ornament to the Government, save for his one vote. It has got to the point where his greatest claim on a knighthood would be for services to the Opposition. And in a neatly “ill wind” circularity, the Marriage Equality Bill may finish off National’s other potential coalition option, the Conservative Party. Leader Colin Craig’s dismissal of the bill’s proposed treatment of homosexuality as a norm as being “unintelligent” will burn off any discouraged Act supporters who might have thought of the Conservatives as a suitable new vehicle. Act’s libertarian ethos cannot coexist with prescriptive moral conservatism. And although it’s possible the marriage-equity issue could be a vote-mobiliser for the Conservatives, it’s more likely to further marginalise the party.
There are so many pressing issues, few voters are likely to feel a die-in-a-ditch passion against a law that allows a few people to do something that causes no one else any harm, costs no one else any money and that, via civil unions, they can near-as-dammit do anyway. Although, on paper, a non-viable Conservative Party is bad for National, which desperately needs a coalition partner to shore up its chances of forming the next government, it would also be rather a relief. National was never crazy about buddying up with Act; its reluctance to smile over a teapot at Craig can scarcely be imagined. This is how far we’ve come since the 1980s: economic hardliners can be tolerated, even without the precaution of nose-pegs, but moral hardliners are quite beyond the pale. The handling of NZ First’s opposition to the bill will take careful handling on Winston Peters’s part, too. He has yet to articulate his caucus’s reasoning, apart from saying there should be a referendum. But Winston has exhibited distinct discomfort with homosexuality in the past, using terms like “gender-bender”. He may epitomise the gut-level resistance some older people feel about the normalised perception of gayness, and he may not be able to articulate his party’s reasoning. But the referendum excuse, although tactful, leads up a gum tree.
The party is happy to vote on other conscience issues, like gambling and alcohol, without recourse to the wider electorate. What is it about this entirely harmless bill, which enables more people to make the solemn and rather laudably ambitious pledge of marriage, that makes it trickier than booze and pokies? People do not fall about senseless and abusive in the street from too much marriage. And although they can lose their homes and savings through marriage, as with gambling, it’s generally nowhere near as great a financial hazard. In the 1980s, nay voters used to rail that gays were out to “convert” us all. Now, presumably, the worry is that the cunning devils are out to convert us all to marital fidelity. Is there no end to their deviousness?