New Zealand: Marriage equality win reflects progressive shift

April 30, 2013

As the packed galleries burst into an impassioned version of “Pokarekare Ana” (a well-known traditional Maori love song) in response to the passing of the Marriage Amendment Bill by 77-44 votes on April 17, a crowd of more than 1000 celebrated outside parliament in Wellington.

The vote made New Zealand the 13th nation to legalise same-sex marriage. France has since become the 14th.

Yet the submission of a private members bill by Labour Party Manurewa MP Louisa Wall was not part of a wider, organised social movement proposal. It was an individual action that started the process of debate and discussion ・ rather than the other way round.

Yet, compared with the political situation in Australia and the fraught process associated with the passing of the Civil Union Act in New Zealand in 2004, winning marriage equality has been relatively straightforward.

In 2004, the then-Labour government pushed forward with the creation of civil unions, described as a “separate but equal” companion to marriage.

The move was derided on the right as being part of a wider policy of “social engineering”.

In this atmosphere, the Dominion Post editorialised that Labour was “pushing too far ahead of public opinion”.

Labour itself was at pains to clarify it was not offering marriage equality. Then-prime minister Helen Clark told the New Zealand Herald: “Should people who want to have legal recognition of a marriage be able to get it? The Government says yes, but you can’t marry. Marriage is only for heterosexuals … That will remain as an option only for heterosexual couples.”

At the time, it seemed like same-sex marriage was well-and-truly off the agenda. The focus of radical queer activists moved to other areas.

But by the time Wall's bill was put forward, the situation had drastically changed -- even though on the surface, little active work had been done to agitate for change.

For instance, only three out of 27 National Party MPs had voted for civil unions. When support of same-sex marriage passed by two thirds of the vote at the National Party conference, it was a clear indication of positive momentum in favour of change.

There was still surprise when the bill's first reading passed 80 votes to 40, with a majority of National MPs voting in favour.

A petition by by conservative lobby groups gathered 50,000 signatures, but more than 900,000 signatures were collected in 1986 against the the legalisation of homosexuality.

The language used by the entrenched opponents of same-sex marriage during this process was as unrelenting as during the passage of the Civil Union legislation. Some submissions against the bill were not accepted due to the extreme language contained in them.

However, this time, the social basis for the opposition was much narrower. At the third reading, only three speakers spoke against the bill. The major speeches in favour for same sex marriage came from conservatives.

Over time, polling indicated that opinion had moved from 40% in support in 2004, to a clear majority by the end of last year.

The decisive factor was time. By this year, the youth wings of all major parties had come out in support of same sex marriage. By this year, those under 40 had been 14 or younger, or not even been born, when homosexuality was legalised.

A more detailed age breakdown by a NZ Herald poll found 60% of respondents older than 65 said marriage should remain only between a man and a woman. But 70% of people under 40 backed same-sex marriages.

Wall said: “For older people, homosexuality was foreign; it meant things like mental illnesses. It was illegal. People could go to jail … Older New Zealanders wouldn't have seen two same-sex people who love each other.”

One aspect that needs further analysis is the nature of same-sex marriage in relation to society at large.

How is it that conservatives with histories of racist outbursts, now undertaking ongoing neoliberal attacks on workers and conditions, can hand on chest argue for a progressive step forward such as the right for same sex couples to marry?

The symbolic nature of same-sex marriage is also its weakness. As important a change as legalising same-sex marriage is, we cannot divorce it from wider politics -- in the same way that homosexuality was legalised at the exact same time as Labour was launching one of the most vicious neoliberal attacks seen in the developed world at the time.

It is a reasonably easy symbolic concession given by forces which, in other areas, are kicking ordinary people. It is a sign of a progressive shift in opinion that needs to be mobilised to win far broader social changes.

[Joel Cosgrove is an activist with Fightback (Aotearoa/New Zealand).]

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