Editorial - A socially divisive bill

The luck of the draw is among the more eccentric features of New Zealand's legislative process. The House gives precedence every second Wednesday to local, private and members' bills. The order paper must have at least eight members' bills (introduced by MPs who are not ministers) awaiting first readings on those occasions. When a space becomes available, a ballot decides which new bill will be introduced.

Like the winning ticket in a lottery, Labour MP Louisa Wall's Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill was among five members' bills drawn from the ballot last week. It is likely to be the most socially divisive, because it aims to permit gays and transsexuals to marry.

People with strong views about marriage for religious and other reasons will regard the drawing of this bill as dismayingly bad luck. All is not lost - yet. Ms Walls' bill will be put to a conscience vote, when given its first reading a few weeks hence. Objectors have time to muster their forces and try to persuade the politicians of the price to be paid if they vote in favour.

The support of 61 MPs would win the day for either side. Many are keeping their powder dry. Marriage Equality, a group in favour of the reform, lists 54 in support, 17 against and 11 undecided. More critically, the positions of 39 MPs are "unknown”.

Some objectors would rather the issue were taken out of the politicians' hands and put to a referendum. But minority rights, ideally, should not be decided in that crude fashion. Anyway, the outcome may well disappoint them. Opinion polls suggest support is running two to one in in favour of same-sex marriage. It is greater among people under 30.

Despite the National Party's conservative lean, its conference recently voted strongly in favour of allowing couples in a civil union to adopt children. Prime Minister John Key, moreover, has declared he will vote for the bill. His argument was potent: if two gay people want to get married, “I can't see why it would undermine my marriage with Bronagh."

The fence-sitters on his team have been given a steer and the bill is likely to get enough support to be sent to a select committee. That's when the public's arguments for and against must be carefully weighed.

Waikato Times