Hard News by Russell Brown

Not a freakin' clue

Could National's families spokesman Judith Collins please refrain from going to the media until she has a freakin' clue what she's on about? She was on Morning Report today declaring that the Civil Union Bill "takes away the choice" of couples as to whether they want to get married or not. It does not.

I can only assume that Collins was confused and was in fact referring to the accompanying Legal Recognition of Relationships (Omnibus) Bill, which aims to remove "unjustifiable" discrimination on relationship status from various statutes, in line with the Human Rights Act. It's not the same as the Civil Union Bill - for a start, it's a whipped party vote and not (as Collins seems to think) a conscience vote.

A brief outline of the kind of things it will change (such as the Cremation Regulations 1973, which doesn't include a non-married life partner in its definition of "family members" who can request a cremation for the deceased) and the things it won't change is available here.

But even that doesn't seem to tally with Collins' curious sounding-off. If anything, she was thinking of the 1999 Property Relationships Act, which governs the division of assets when married or de facto couples (including gay couples, to the consternation of some of those affected) break up. In general, the act seems to be working, and providing a fairer deal for those (usually women) who fared badly in separations. But it does sometimes, as was widely anticipated at the time, "marry" people who didn't necessarily want to be.

Denis Welch recently had a good story in The Listener about it (offline-only, unfortunately) and I certainly have some sympathy for the idea of an amendment like that proposed by Stephen Franks that didn't require a full property split where it could be shown that neither partner had made any sacrifice, suffered any detriment or otherwise changed their position in the course of the relationship. It's all very well to say that people can always formally opt out, but that's not the way people actually behave. On the other hand, as Vivienne Crawshaw pointed out in a disturbing Herald opinion piece, in an abusive relationship, even opting out can be forced to the disadvantage of one party. Yet it's undeniable that under the 1999 Act, the vulnerable are better protected than they were before.

But this is a different issue and Collins was either woefully out of touch or simply engaging in cynical politicking. I respect Don Brash for (it seems) taking a morally and politically consistent stand in supporting civil unions. It would be nice if a few more of his caucus stood up and did the same. Who knows, perhaps the closeted MPs on his side of the House - and no, I'm not about to out them - might one day find themselves able to emerge?

Then again, my profession hasn't exactly been flushed with courage on this one. I had a search done on newspaper editorials on the Civil Union Bill and there ain't many of 'em.

It appears that The Press is the only metropolitan paper to go there, in an editorial that said, in part: "For the bill to prevail, one key argument which must be refuted is that the bill threatens the institution of marriage. It does not. Not altered by one iota by the bills is the situation of those who tie the knot because they value the special social or religious significance of the marital commitment … the debate over civil unions should not, as Dunne would argue, focus on a threat to the institution of marriage. Rather, the core of the issue is discrimination."

Out in the regions, the Nelson Mail said "this is a bill appropriate to the times, recognising the reality of relationships instead of attempting to deny their existence," but a rather sour effort in the Waikato Times said "there are plenty of ways to enshrine anti-discrimination laws, without going as far as creating a second class of marriage."

Timaru Herald: noted the "inevitability" of the two pieces of legislation, and said that the tradition of marriage "does and will for some time carry the edge in the commitment stakes. No matter how sincere civil union couples are, they will not be seen in the same light as a married couple … stop denouncing civil unions, and start promoting the value of marriage."

The Daily News of Taranaki was positively paranoid in its editorial, declaring that "a commitment has been made by Labour to try to advance the gay (including lesbian) cause another step, and the sector's lobbyists are certainly not going to go away … if that were the limit of its influence, the broader society - which scarcely raises an eyebrow at cohabiting gays these days and is generally more benign to them than they are in return - might offer no resistance to the intended legislative change."

But that, it says, "will not be the end of the matter, only a new beginning. The next step in an ongoing campaign of de-stigmatisation will be 'equal marriage', along with the rights of adoption and artificial conception … Marriage and child-rearing deserve the special status worthy of a bedrock institution that offers the best hope for all - not just a fringe few - involved."

The New Zealand Herald will, I expect, opine next week when the bills get a reading, but did advance a perspective in an editorial defending its Bishop Vercoe story and the "a world without gays" headline that accompanied it:

The community has come to a more open view of homosexuality not by the efforts of a censorious conspiracy but by the force of factual argument. Surely most people now recognise that homosexuality is simply a variant of human nature, as elemental to gays as their gender or ethnicity. And, yes, we would have given the same prominence to the views of someone in Bishop Vercoe's position if he had advocated a world without Jews or Maori. Most definitely.

Alright, then. Actually, I'd really rather not be banging on about civil unions all the time, but I am concerned that what I regard as a timely recognition of human rights will be shouted down by privately-funded moral thugs and opportunist politicians. On a personal level, I am not about to abandon my good gay friends.

I'm less exercised about the fact that civil unions aren't marriage, or fall short of it, than some people on my side of the argument are. Perhaps "marriage" is owned by the institutions that have nurtured it, perhaps it does only refer to heterosexual partnerships, to a husband and a wife. Maybe you do call same-sex unions something different. If the rights in society are equal, that doesn't really bother me.

Simple biology dictates that most same-sex civil unions won't involve children, but some will. However trad it sounds, I think women are in general better equipped to care for children. So should the system weigh in favour of women where children are involved? News flash: the Family Court already does just that. But the idea that any conventional family, married or not, and no matter how troubled, unhappy or abusive, is intrinsically better for children than a home with one or two caring dads (or mums) is absurd and irrational.

Anyway, like the campaign says: love doesn't discriminate, and neither should the law.