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April 29, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Under the Big, Gay Rainbow

Yes, we’re talking gay marriage. By now, perhaps you are afflicted with a sort of gay exhaustion. You pick up the newspaper only to be hounded by yet another article on gay weddings, and even though you might be all for them, you might not be able to stop yourself from thinking is this how strapped for news we are? To you I say buck up and sit down, because the passing of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill is remarkable for a number of reasons, many of them not immediately apparent. Labour MP Louisa Wall, who sponsored the Bill, says that from the beginning, “We knew that unless we worked in a way that identified and consolidated support we wouldn’t have been able to achieve what we did.” But how was this possible? Can we look forward to more of it in the future? Because that would be really quite nice.

The dissection of what has just happened is important because the Bill’s passage into law has been marked by one of the largest reactions in recent memory. Over 20,000 submissions were made to Parliament on the issue. During the readings of the Bill, spectators filled the galleries and spilled out into the streets. It would be very tricky to pay too much attention to this Bill. But even more than that, this Bill has evoked in parliament a most unusual level of open cross-party communication and cooperation. Whether or not you think the Bill is a good thing isn’t the issue here. The debate has, for the most part, been sensible and civil, both words that you see very infrequently when talking politics. Figuring out why would stand us in good stead for the future.

What’s more, the opinions of young people have been more organised, focussed and communicable than they have been in quite a long time. In a rare display of unity, for instance, the youth wings of National, Labour, Greens, ACT, Mana, United First, and the Māori Party all endorsed and actively supported the Bill, which is contrary to the usual vitriolic hysteria that seizes many when discussing hot issues.

Political commentator David Farrar points to the highly organised activities of these youth wings as being instrumental in dredging up support for the Bill, and argues that a strong culture for cooperation amongst the main youth wings was, to a degree, already in place. “Four or five of the youth wings came together on the drinking age, so there had already been cooperation there. So when marriage equality came around, you already had a bit of a nucleus. Normally the number of issues the youth wings would agree on would be almost zero, because party activists tend to be… more extreme in their opinions than the average voters or even some MPs. The Young Nats tend to believe in absolute [economic] freedom, Young Labour tend to be much more socialist, the young Greens are eco-warriors, Act on Campus believe Ayn Rand should be made Queen.” But even more than this, Farrar believes that young people on the whole have a very different relationship with politics than people of an older generation. “What was reinforced so strongly by this Bill, and what I think had quite a big impact on MPs, was that when you look at all the polls this is not an issue for people under 30. To be honest, it isn’t an issue for people under 60… Homosexual Law Reform would have occurred [for those people] around the age of 45. Almost everyone has gay friends, or at least friends of friends, and they just don’t see why their friends can’t get married.” So, Farrar says, the unified front presented by the youth wings served as a reminder for what he believes is a shift in the way younger people interact with politics. “…Young people on a range of social issues are much more liberal.” For instance, “I think if you actually ever tackled the issue of drug reform I suspect you could get all of the youth wings pretty much agreeing that the current criminalisation approach is a dated idea. I think that there is a trend amongst younger people where… you can disagree vehemently on the economic issues, but there isn’t such a thing on those social issues.”

What is interesting here is that this sort of cooperative behavior only seems to be really kosher in cases of social policy, where a moral impetus is what drives decision-making. Matters of economic decision-making are treated in a much more regimented, acerbic way. Farrar describes this shift as rooted in history. “The post-Rogernomics generation are less tribal. [For] those who went through the Rogernomics revolution it was a pretty polarising thing. You went from total command economy under Muldoon to some of the most free-market reforms, and it pushed people to extremes. To a degree I think that most of the younger generation aren’t as interested in that debate. I think the younger MPs have been reflecting that a wee bit.”

National MP Nikki Kaye, who was hugely vocal in her support of the Bill, doesn’t think that this sort of cooperation is necessarily limited to conscience issues. Rather, it’s difficult for the public to see what happens behind the scenes. “At a Select Committee level, there is often a huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes, and the public don’t always see that. My understanding is that there is a move to broadcast Select Committees, which will allow New Zealanders to see some of that cross-party work.”

“I have a strong LGBT community in Auckland Central. I called for… Pride Festival to come back to Auckland. I’ve also worked with [Green Party MP] Kevin Hague on an adoption bill that he has in the ballot. So it was pretty natural for me to build relationships with Louisa and Kevin on this bill.

“I think that Parliament does have a proud history around conscience issues, and that more cross-party work happens around conscience issues. I also worked on the purchase-age issue; I had an amendment originally on keeping the age at 18, so I’ve had some other experience of working cross-party.”

Wall is thankful for the support of Victoria University students in particular. “I just want to thank the [Victoria University] student membership for being so willing to take a leadership role and for being proactive in [their] advocacy. Some of the other student unions weren’t as active. It was only through that action—people being really clear about why they were supporting the Bill, young people being part of the original march to Parliament—that created this [impetus] that was unstoppable in the end.” Right on, right on.

But what, if anything, does this mean for the future? Farrar has one answer. “Does it mean love and hugs in the future? The main spokesperson for the Campaign for Marriage Equality is Conrad Reyners, who is also very prominent in the Labour Party, and after celebrating the success of the Bill we all ended up at McDonald’s. And as he’s about to leave he goes ‘I guess I have to go back to calling you a fascist bastard now,’ and I was like ‘yeah, and you’re a Communist and a traitor.’” Indeed, love unites us all. “When you have an adversarial political system where you get policy through by rubbishing the other side you aren’t going to get great change.” What’s more, Farrar reminds us that it is not appropriate to get too “polyamorous”. “The Prime Minister deciding to back marriage equality was very significant. Not necessarily to change the final result, but the fact that it gave a lot of National MPs room to move, and you didn’t see any National MPs do this massive, emotional campaign against it in the way you did see with civil unions, prostitution reform, and the Homosexual Law Reform. It’s pretty amazing that only three National MPs voted
for civil unions.”

Wall is more optimistic. “I think that actually there will be other opportunities for us to work in such a collaborative manner. So I am hoping that this becomes in some way a model of best practice that we can all look to.” Wall does, however, acknowledge, much like Farrar, that there are systematic characteristics of the political process that limit the scope for this sort of cooperation.
“The major problem is that it is very hard to collaborate around Government bills, because each politician will have a different idea about what the problem and the solution are. That’s what happens in politics: you have a competition of ideas, and a competition of priorities. So context is very important, particularly with this Bill.”

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