Hard News by Russell Brown

Moral thugs

Clearly, Garth George is back on letters duty at the Herald. Yesterday's column was led by four missives of boilerplate Maxim Institute-derived raving about PC, perversions and the threat to the family. Was there really no other opinion?

The fourth author, Stephen D. Taylor, is certainly a Maxim associate. Critic profiled him and the organisation last year. He writes a constant stream of morally outraged letters, sending each one to 76 publications at the click of a button, via the "wizard" (aren't wizards sort of occult?) on the Maxim website - including those he has never and will never read. I thought this was a bad idea when the Greens introduced it for their GE campaign, and I still do - if people want to write a letter to the editor, they should have to do it one at a time, not spam the country via a website.

But it's what Taylor actually says in his letter that is offensive and even disturbing: "I can only hope a champion will soon arise to blunt Mr [Tim] Barnett's ardour for legislative iniquity. Otherwise, as is the case with rabid dogs, he shall have to be "put down"."

Presumably Taylor has churned out so many of these things that he's simply lost his mind. But what do you think would be the response if a greenie or an anti-war protestor were to threaten a sitting MP with being "put down" like a rabid dog? And what, pray tell, is the Herald doing printing this crap? (Update: see a response from the Herald below.)

As luck would have it, Maxim Institute director Bruce Logan was a guest on my Wire show yesterday, and we had a lively 15-minute discussion on the Civil Union Bill. Logan is a capable advocate, and, in the Maxim style, fond of talking about research and incontrovertible fact. (When I felt bound to point out that my unmarried family household was as stable, loving and secure as any other that I was aware of, he briskly told me that "anecdotes" weren't useful.)

And here we arrive at what possibly annoys me most about the Maxim schtick: the relentless deployment of junk science. The organisation's magazine is called Evidence, as if to emphasis that its claims contents are irrevocable fact. In fact, as Craig Young pointed out in a sharp critique last year, they tend to be anything but.

I asked Logan whether, given the chance, he would reverse the Homosexual Law Reform and recriminalise homosexual acts. Not at all, he said: the gay community's claim that the state had no business in their bedrooms was valid - but civil unions were different.

I suspect that wasn't what he was saying at the time: back then, there were widespread and dire predictions of the corrosive effect on family and society of the bill - the same as you're hearing now.

Doreen Agassiz-Suddens went through Hansard and came up with a parade of amusing quotes and then, by popular demand, a follow-up. Although great alarum was sounded from both sides of the House, my personal favourite was from National's Invercargill MP Norm Jones:

If the Bill is passed in its present form the country will become a Mecca for thousands of homosexuals from Australia, the Continent, and America, who will jet in here. Our 16-year-olds are virgin territory. The Minister of Tourism will be able to advertise New Zealand to homosexuals throughout the world: 'Come to New Zealand for sun, for scenery, and safe sodomy.'

But then Logan seemed to infer that homosexual law reform was part of a general collapse in values that had led to an explosion in social ills such as divorce and child abuse.

Well, alright: the New Zealand divorce rate had been trending steadily upwards for 15 years by 1980, when the law was amended to transfer marriage dissolution to the Family Court and make it less onerous. It spiked in the next two years, came down quite sharply and has been basically flat at around 12 per thousand marriages since the mid-80s. (As a reference point, that's half the rate in the US, the most overtly pious country in the developed world, but 16 times the rate in Sri Lanka.)

On the other hand, if the 15-year trend up to the divorce law reform had continued (and there may have been reasons it wouldn't have), the rate would be considerably higher than it is now.

Logan also contended that couples who cohabit before marrying have a higher divorce rate than those who do not. This is true. But the difference disappears after eight years of marriage. But does this suggest that cohabitation damages marriage - as Logan contended - or that people who cohabit don't have the same serious commitment to marriage in the first place? This would seem more plausible than the idea that cohabitation has some innate, and fatally corrupting, impact.

People are people - something Maxim rarely acknowledges as it rushes around looking under the floorboards for moral rot. People decide to get married for a range of reasons - including, sometimes, a desire to shore up an already strained relationship. We've all seen it. Two people who have been living together do the wedding thing, then a year or two later it all falls apart. (A good friend of mine had to get married before he could admit he was gay - his wife was incredibly understanding about it.)

But statistics are funny things. Born-again Christians have a higher divorce rate than non-Christians. What might Maxim make of that? (Actually, it appears that, in the US anyway the problem is that born-again Christians have a lower level of education than non-Christians, and also that they marry younger - both of those being indicators for divorce.)

So it is a much more complex world than Maxim likes to pretend. Liberalisation has costs and benefits - for instance, our youth suicide rate began to soar at the same time as our economic restructuring began - but I doubt that most of us would truly wish to retreat to the New Zealand of the 1960s.

The other irksome element of the Maxim schtick - adopted wholesale by Peter Dunne - is that godless Labour liberals are "imposing their prejudices" on New Zealanders, and dragging them places they have no wish to go. In fact, in almost every instance, the law has followed society and not led it.

By the time the Property Relationships Act was amended there were more than 300,000 New Zealanders living in cohabitation, and there are yet more now as the Civil Unions Bill is prepared - what was a responsible government meant to do here: hide under the covers? On current trends, the number of New Zealanders living in sin will overtake the number regularly attending church in a couple of years. So who's out of step?

The social indicators do not show the descent into the maelstrom that Maxim would have us see. Yes, crime has risen: the overall offence rate more than doubled between 1970 and 1992, from 55 per thousand to 132. ("This rise may be due to a real change in the volume of crime in New Zealand, to changes in recording practices, or to a combination of the two," according to the Department of Statistics, which also noted that crime followed the baby boom - in other words, it was highest when most people were of crime-committing age.) It plateaued for three years and has been falling since. Sexual offences (less than 1% of overall offences) have seen no significant increase since 1994. If political correctness is tearing society's fabric, it's not really showing.

Along the way, we have also learned to abuse alcohol less, to treat family violence seriously and to become a far more open society. In 1968, the suggestion in the Evening Post that, statistically speaking, four MPs might be gay sparked an outrage and a privileges committee hearing. The Post was forced to apologise. Now, of course, members of Parliament can be who they are, and we're even seeing the public arrival of gay conservatives - perhaps the ultimate notice of arrival from the margins.

So, yes. I'll take us for who we are now, over the people Maxim would have us be, any day.

PS: A Public Address reader complained about the Taylor letter and received this response from Herald editor Tim Murphy: "The phrase concerned should not have appeared but was missed by me, when approving the letters for the day. After the "put down" line was raised with me by Gay Watch this afternoon I phoned Tim Barnett, apologised and we will run a brief apology to him on the letters page tomorrow. It was a highly unfortunate breach of our letters to the editor policy which certainly does not allow threats or abuse of this type. We are sorry that it occurred."