How progressive is New Zealand?

00:30, Apr 19 2013

Like many of you, I felt a lot of pride yesterday having woken up to the news that New Zealand had become the 13th country in the world to legalise gay marriage.

This was global news; a friend of mine as far away as Norway alerted me to it. On my Facebook wall he posted the video of our Parliament as the result came in and the jubilant, semi-impromptu Pokarekare Ana singalong that followed. It was a beautiful moment. I'm not embarrassed that I got a little choked up watching it.

The news fell on the same day that the US Senate voted to kill expanded background checks for gun owners, a measure which polls much more favourably here than gay marriage does in New Zealand. But it also came on the same day that our Parliament passed a stifling bill to ban protest against oil ships at sea that would have little hope of getting anywhere in America (first amendment and all). It was an odd news day.      

Going by the contrasting results in the guns and gay marriage votes, you'd have to conclude that New Zealand is much more progressive than the USA. And judging by the responses in comments sections internationally, many people were coming to similar conclusions. 

It looked again like another case of small and intellectual New Zealand living a few years ahead of weird and incomprehensible America.

But is this really true?


A 3 News opinion poll taken just after Christmas last year put support for gay marriage in New Zealand at 60 per cent. Similar American polls peg America's support between 50 and 60 per cent. So going off this, our two countries think pretty similarly.

There are epic geographical difference on this subject in the USA. Support for gay marriage is greater than 60 per cent in New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island and New York, but less than 30 per cent in Tennessee, Utah, Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia and Mississippi.

In some ways it is almost more amazing to me that the majority of America can tip toward thinking anything. And let's not forget that it was Obama's Biden-induced endorsement for gay marriage last year that created a political opening for someone like John Key to come out and voice his support

So you have a similar level of public support and an American president who helped blaze a path for gay marriage in New Zealand, but gay marriage in New Zealand and not America.

I know, right? What gives?

The "progressive" label has replaced the more battle-scarred "liberal" in recent times. It's hard to define, but I generally interpret it (on a governmental level) as being modern, future-focused, protecting the rights of all citizens and the plight of the little guy.

Marriage equality congratulations aside, John Key's New Zealand doesn't fit much of that label: he's pandered to special interest in New Zealand, presided over a government that has been privy and passive to environmental degradation, rewritten laws for specific businesses when needed, spied illegally on citizens, made it much harder for people to study and increased the strain of borrowing to do so, changed the tax code and GST rates to place the tax burden on lower-income earners and wants to now work over the Resource Management Act and make massive changes in the hoops the more hapless members of society must jump through to get welfare.

As good news as the new marriage equality law was... it's not as big a Band Aid as it needs to be.

The thing to me is, neither country is particularly progressive. (New Zealand will, however, always hold national heath care and a social safety net as its trump card.)

As many sins as I could list above for John Key, it would be longer for Barack Obama and he's a guy I generally support as the much lesser of two evils here.

The difference in government between the US and New Zealand is one of responsiveness and courage at an organisational level.

This week's vote is a victory for all parts of government in New Zealand, for being sensible, for being in tune with the people on an important social issue, for being relatively devoid of the pratfalls that can hijack the passage of a piece of policy that has broad support.

Civil rights, abortion, homosexuality and now gay marriage... the American Government hasn't taken a stand on any social issue without first deferring awkwardly to the Supreme Court to get the ball rolling.

So is New Zealand more progressive? No. (Well, more than some parts of America.)

It is just an issue of better organised and more responsible government. Which is still something to feel good about, yes? 

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