Hard News by Russell Brown

Real conscience

With various lobby groups pouring on the last-minute moral panic, it appears that the vote on Thursday's second reading of the Civil Union Bill might be a little tighter than anticipated. Surprisingly, this morning's Herald story lists Don Brash and Pansy Wong, the founder of National's nascent gay wing, as potential flip-floppers.

I'm considerably less surprised that Tariana Turia has dismissed the CUB as "unnecessary" and will be voting against it. I predicted a while back that the Maori Party would be the vehicle for a new Maori conservatism. But I look forward to interviewing Matt McCarten again: last time we spoke on the radio he assured me that the party would be socially liberal. I don't think so.

It's not hard to see what's going on here: a number of MPs are spooked by the lobbying from the religious right, and by the flood of form submissions to the select committee. But every poll taken on the issue this year has found a majority of the public in favour of the legislation, with the exception of one, in which a plurality was in favour. And this while various groups are telling everyone the sky is going to fall. It won't.

A little history would be in order here. In 1978, Victoria University's Richard Bowman set out to do what no one had yet done in New Zealand - or Australia, for that matter - survey ordinary New Zealanders on their views regarding homosexuality.

Nearly 500 people were surveyed, in the inner suburbs of Wellington, and in Hamilton. The results stood in stark contrast to what had gone on in Parliament in the preceding years. In 1976, Parliament had shunned a bid to decriminalise homosexual acts. In 1977, it ruled homosexuals out of protection under the Human Rights Act.

Members of Parliament presumably considered themselves to be standing up for social order. But Bowman found that three quarters of his subjects thought homosexual acts should be removed from the Crimes Act. It took MPs eight years and a good deal of struggle to catch up with the public mood.

Furthermore, 80% of the people surveyed said the Human Rights Act should be extended to offer protection on the basis of sexual orientation. That took 14 years!

But Bowman's topline number was the one: 94% of the survey - in 1978, remember - believed that what consenting adults did together was their own business. On issues of choice and morality, the change in society typically takes place long before the change in the statutes.

This year's Herald DigiPoll found a majority for civil unions, and for those unions to embody the same rights as marriage. But perhaps what was nicer than the raw numbers were the interviews in the Herald's report on the poll. A basic sense of justice, of equity, seemed to come through.

Writing in 1944, ARD Fairburn (whose alleged homophobia was a matter of writers' bitching rather than something he practised in daily life) saw something similar in us. He declared that "the capacity for preserving minority rights is one of the tests of a democracy." But he drew a distinction between what he called positive and negative rights.

The right to prevent people from doing things like drinking, dancing and sunbathing [and they were all variously proscribed by wowsers of the time) because, he said, "of pseudo-moral or pseudo-theological prejudices is negative, and is not justifiable even in a majority. But when a minority, which is in the wrong, manages to circumvent the desire and cripple the activities of the majority, then things are in a bad way."

The Dom Post this morning notes that the Relationships Bill accompanying the CUB won't come up for a vote until next year, after some more work has been done. This isn't news, and as I have said before, it is a good thing: the original bill stood to make uncommitted relationships more than they really were.

The irony is that civil unions should never have been so controversial. They weren't when the legislation was first mooted, and they haven't been in Britain, where the civil partnerships bill has emerged from the House of Lords and is on its way to becoming law. It now appears that Ireland will be next off the rank. For goodness sake, even George W. Bush backs civil unions, and said so as recently as six weeks ago. Are we really to cast ourselves to the right of Dubya?

In most places where same-sex civil unions have been introduced, a small but dedicated lobby has been opposed on the basis that they aren't full-fledged marriage, and thus not equal. The same applies here, and there is some merit in the argument, but gay conservatives who believe that the defeat of the CUB would somehow open the way for same-sex marriage are fooling themselves.

I know that some of our MPs - including Stephen Franks, for whom this whole business has been little more than an excuse to preen - are a lost cause, but I hope that the waverers will take this as my personal plea for them to genuinely examine their consciences.

I'm not married, so the bill gives me an option, but for me, support for civil unions comes down in the final event to standing by my friends. I've always had gay friends, and I've had two old friends come out later in life. (One of them, at the age of 43, went and told his parents. And his mum said: "you're going through a phase, dear." The other one, it must be said, gave heterosexuality a really good go - to the point of getting married. He has been in a long-term relationship with a lovely man in London for years now, and will be delighted at the prospect of formalising a civil partnership.)

That action, that acknowledgement, that freedom to be, had a huge positive impact on the lives of my friends. It was as if a weight had lifted from both of them. And when I stand behind civil unions, I stand behind that.