Taking vows that crucial step further

KARL DU FRESNE
Last updated 13:24 29/08/2012

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Karl du Fresne

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Few political issues in my lifetime have been more divisive than the Homosexual Law Reform Bill of 1986. It didn't quite cause the violent convulsions that shook New Zealand during the 1981 Springbok tour, but the debate was almost as polarising.

To many people, legalising homosexual acts seemed a radical, dangerous step. Yet 26 years later, only a hard-core minority would still insist the country made a terrible mistake.

Even many of those who opposed the bill in 1986 now accept that it was wrong to treat someone as a criminal for being attracted to the same sex. The ability to form intimate relationships is essential for a complete life and it seems almost medieval that for so long, homosexual men (not lesbian women, oddly enough - the law didn't recognise their existence) were denied this right.

Now fast-forward to 2004. That was when Parliament passed the Civil Unions Act, giving same-sex couples the right to formalise their relationship in a legally sanctioned ceremony that was effectively marriage in all but name.

A companion bill removed discriminatory provisions based on relationship status, with the result that all couples - whether married, de facto or joined in a civil union - had the same rights and obligations, with the one exception that non-married couples were not allowed to adopt children.

Considering the furore that had gripped New Zealand in 1986, the Civil Unions Act passed with relatively little fuss. Of the mainstream Churches, only the Catholics put up much resistance.

Otherwise, most opposition came from Pentecostal-style Churches - notably the Destiny Church, which organised the memorable, black-shirted “Enough is Enough” march on Parliament. And that was that, or so most people thought.

All done and dusted.

Certainly, senior Labour politicians gave that impression. Prime minister Helen Clark was at pains to stress in 2004 that marriage was “only for heterosexuals” and that the Marriage Act would remain unchanged.

Her statement was clearly intended to reassure people that civil unions would not be a precursor to gay marriage.

Gay MP Tim Barnett said in Parliament that civil unions were an acceptable alternative (to marriage) and that “marriage can remain untouched”. Cabinet ministers Margaret Wilson and David Benson-Pope gave similar assurances that traditional marriage would be protected.

Yet here we are, eight years down the track, and Parliament is about to debate a bill permitting same-sex partners to marry. You could conclude that Ms Clark and Co were being less than honest in 2004, but it's just as likely that the gay agenda has since taken on a political momentum of its own.

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I suspect that notwithstanding the reassurances in 2004, same-sex marriage was always the long-term goal of gay activists who were politically savvy enough to realise that their agenda could only be achieved incrementally - that as politicians and the public were conditioned to each liberalisation of the law, they would become more receptive to further reform. That's pretty much how it has turned out, with opinion polls suggesting the public is relaxed about gay marriage and even the prime minister declaring his support.

And many would say, where's the problem? Few social institutions are static and immutable. Without change, society could never progress.

The counter-argument, however, is that change is not always for the better. And when radical change is being proposed to an institution as fundamental as marriage, a compelling case needs to be made. I don't believe such a case has been made.

Consider this: all rights except the right to adopt and to use the word “marriage” were granted to same-sex couples in 2004. Like Helen Clark, I thought that settled the issue, but clearly it wasn't enough. Gay activists weren't content with marriage in everything but name; they wanted to confer on same-sex relationships the ultimate legitimacy that only the word “marriage” could provide.

This smacks of “you've got it, so I demand it too”. And many would say, where's the harm in that? As John Key says, his marriage isn't threatened by allowing same-sex couples to marry. But while that may be true in a personal sense, what about marriage in the broader context, as a social institution? Could it be diminished in value and importance?

Propagandists for same-sex marriage argue that marriage has taken different forms in different times and places and that what we now call marriage is a relatively recent concept. Therefore, they reason, why get agitated if it undergoes further change?

But this is at best specious and at worst dishonest, because the constant factor that has set marriage apart from other relationships throughout history, and across all cultures, is that it has involved people of opposite sexes.

That is its essence. Change that and marriage becomes something else. Many would argue that its uniqueness would be destroyed and its importance fundamentally and irrevocably diminished. And while I'm not a conspiracy theorist, I can see why some traditionalists see same-sex marriage as part of a much broader attack on the family and traditional values.

I've also seen it argued that marriage has historically been about economic convenience and security rather than love, as if to say “what's the big deal anyway?” Again, this is an argument that seems designed to diminish the worth of marriage by playing down love, fidelity, companionship and commitment.

The intent, it seems, is to convince us that marriage was always a bit of a sham anyway, and thus hardly worth bothering to preserve it in its present form. But if that's the case, one might ask, why are same-sex couples so eager to share its benefits?

On many social issues, I'm conservative by instinct. I am not rigidly opposed to change, but we need to be convinced of its merits.

I have no desire to see gay people denied the right to a full and happy life, but I believe they achieved that with the Civil Unions Act. The supporters of that legislation seemed to take the same view at the time. Nothing has changed, except that gay activists demand to go a crucial step further. In doing so they will gain little, yet irrevocably change something that is unique and precious. Why risk it?

- Nelson

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