Gordon Campbell on last night’s same sex marriage debate

Once again, when Parliament went into conscience vote mode last night on a contentious issue, the quality of debate markedly improved – as MPs briefly managed to escape from their usual role of being fodder for pre-set party positions. At times, there was even genuine tension about the unpredictability of it all. When, for instance, the likes of National’s Paul Hutchison rose to speak he was widely expected to vote against Louisa Wall’s Marriage Amendment Bill, but Hutchison said instead that he could find no intellectual, moral, health or spiritual grounds for refusing to support it. For good measure, Hutchison added that it had been discussions with the Greens’ Kevin Hague and Labour’s Maryan Street about the damage done to gay/lesbian/transgender teens by discrimination and bullying is what had convinced him to change his mind. Heady stuff. On such occasions, one can almost wish that all votes in the House should be conscience votes. Or at least dual votes – here’s what my party expects of me, and here’s what I expect of myself.

Other highlights – the speech by Labour’s David Clark, a former Presbyterian minister, who began with an interesting anecdote about an older gay person in his electorate who urged him to vote against it – on the grounds that his fight had been to achieve civil unions, and he wanted no truck with the historical baggage entailed with marriage, thank you very much. In a clever and thoughtful speech, Clark drew upon his church background to strike a balance both between the differing religious points of view on the issue, and with the human rights issues involved, before voting to support the Bill. It was Clark’s speech I think that also mentioned in passing the pragmatic rationale that when traveling, some people still face discrimination if they cannot tick the “married” box required by foreign officialdom. It was a nice touch of realism among some of the headier flights of idealism.

Labour’s Su’a William Sio and National’s Tim McIndoe both voiced their opposition with dignity and eloquence. McIndoe has become the standard bearer for the conservative opposition and –while decent and humane in his recognition of the impulses behind Wall’s Bill – he somewhat disappointingly failed to muster an argument that went much beyond tradition and hurt feelings. Marriage in McIndoe’s world always has been something only between A Man and A Woman, and many of his constituents feel very strongly that way. End of story.

Still when McIndoe’s National colleague and Wairarapa MP John Hayes did try to put up a contrary argument, you almost wished that he hadn’t made the effort. To Hayes, the whole thing was a product of the dastardly social reformers within Labour’s ranks. And moreover….allow the state to issue a marriage licence to same sex couples, Hayes darkly suggested and where would it all end? Re-define marriage once, and what was to stop it from being re-defined again? Would the state be condoning incest next? Thankfully, even Hayes stopped short of revealing whether any of his constituents over in the Wairarapa were harbouring fears that the socialists have even darker intentions involving our four legged ‘friends’ in mind.

Hayes can usually be relied on to provide the low point in any debate but last night that honour fell to Winston Peters, who refused to engage in the conscience vote process or with Wall’s Bill at all. His older constituency would probably have welcomed seeing their champion oppose the Bill, but that would have tested New Zealand First’s party unity, so Peters sought to kick for touch and call for a national referendum on the issue. It looked pretty shabby, on a night when for an hour at least, other MPs were trying to rise above business as usual.

The voting pattern was fairly predictable. No surprise that Catholic conservatives such as Bill English opposed Wall’s Bill. More surprising to some that National’s token liberal Chris Finlayson – also a Catholic and reportedly, also gay – voted against it. As did Tony Ryall. Unfortunately, the Act Party’s John Banks did not get to speak. As a self professed believer in the literal truth of the Old Testament, Banks would have to be a Leviticus man through and through on this issue, at heart. Yet even though Wall’s Bill first reading vote was a conscience vote, Banks could hardly vote according to his conscience without violating his party’s socially liberal stance on individual rights. So, last night, he cast a proxy vote in support. (Act’s libertarian impulses begin and end with economic rights and lifestyle issues. It routinely votes to increase the powers of the Police and intelligence agencies.) Alas, last night, we were denied the entertaining sight of Banks trying to juggle his Bible backed conscience with his party’s commitment to certain secular freedoms. Perhaps we’ll get that chance at the second reading.

So what now? The Bill goes to select committee, with a full, head of steam from its 84 to 40 majority that should be hard to turn around. Among the issues flagged in speeches last night and likely to arise again at select committee: whether same sex married couples can or should be constrained as to the gender of the child they can adopt. (I think it was Tim McIndoe who raised this point.) Or, on what grounds the Human Rights Commission might balance in future the rights of freedom of religion against the right to be free from discrimination. In other words, if Wall’s Bill becomes law and the state issues a licence to marry to a same sex couple and a church or celebrant refuses to marry them citing religious grounds, which right will then prevail under the HRA if an impasse occurs and is challenged? Ending discrimination by the state could prove to have been the easy part.