Civil unions fall off but 'still have place'

ANNA PEARSON
Last updated 05:00 02/07/2014

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Ten years ago a bill passed through Parliament, delighting those campaigning for the rights of same-sex couples across the country.

The Civil Union Act 2004 led to the first civil unions being celebrated on April 29, 2005.

A total of 3227 New Zealand couples have had civil unions till March this year.

They include Labour Party general secretary Tim Barnett, a strong campaigner for civil unions 10 years ago, and his partner, Ramon Maniapoto.

Barnett, 55, and Maniapoto, 44, had been together for more than six years when they entered into a civil union in 2007.

Barnett, who was a Labour MP for Christchurch Central at the time of the couple's civil union at Waitetoko Marae near Turangi, says it was an "emotional" affair.

He was given away by Margaret Wilson - Parliament's first female Speaker of the House.

"For a lot of people . . . it was the first civil union they had been to. It was still new," he says.

Marriage equality was clearly the next step, but "it would have failed" in 2004.

"I do not think we were ready for that."

It was not until 2012 that Labour MP Louisa Wall's game-changing piece of legislation entered the House.

Wall's bill went on to become the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act in 2013.

It ensures all people, regardless of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, have the opportunity to marry if they want to.

Last year the number of civil unions in New Zealand nearly halved - from 390 in 2012 to 233.

Despite this, Barnett says civil unions still have their place in New Zealand society.

They were an important step along the way and "a good lead-in to what we have now".

Adoption laws still needed "tidying up", but marriage equality "will make that debate a lot faster".

When Barnett joined Parliament in 1996 - the same year Chris Carter, New Zealand's first gay MP, was voted out, he became the only homosexual in the House.

"I was seen as a bit of an oddity, but to have rainbow MPs in Parliament is now the norm," he says.

"The numbers have increased across the political spectrum."

Barnett sat through about 250 parliamentary select committee submissions on the Civil Union Bill in 2004 and says "the prejudice was deeper" than it is now.

He says while civil union legislation was a milestone, the Relationships (Statutory References) Act 2005 was "in many ways . . . more radical".

The act amended more than 150 acts of Parliament to add, after every reference to "marriage", the words "civil union and de facto", leading to "legal equality" between marriage, civil unions and heterosexual or homosexual de facto relationships.

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Barnett says marriage equality was "the last bastion" for a lot of people. He says he and Maniapoto will "make that leap . . . at the right moment".

Until then, they will continue to enjoy their relationship - regardless of its definition.

"It is great to know the choice is there."

- The Press

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