Hard News by Russell Brown

Whatever happens tomorrow

Whatever happens tomorrow, history will not fondly regard the Labour MPs who vote against the Civil Union Bill. If it passes its first reading and eventually becomes law, they will be seen as having stood against an act of social justice whose apparently dire implications - shades of homosexual law reform - will be quickly eroded by reality.

If the bill fails at its first step - and it now looks a much tighter thing than had been supposed - a number of them will be seen as people who welshed not only on a policy pledge carried by their party into the last election, but informal undertakings to the bill's backers to at least let it proceed to select committee and be democratically debated.

So what has changed for those who might flip? Not society. The difference is that the debate has been entered by richly-funded religious multinationals who have, literally, put the fear of God in some waverers.

The New Zealand Herald, as it was eventually always likely to, came out in favour of the Civil Union Bill and its accompanying omnibus bill in an editorial today. The paper has dutifully operated a tit-for-tat policy on opinion pieces on the issue, but for all that it has not been equal. Generally, the agenda has been set by an opposing opinion, which is subsequently rebutted.

And some of those opposing opinions have been unusual. On Monday, the Herald ran Homosexual unions not morally equal, a comment by Samuel Gregg, who was described as "director of research at the Acton Institute, Grand Rapids, Michigan, United States." Which he is: but it might have been helpful to, at the least, use the full title of his organisation: The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty.

You wouldn't know from Gregg's text that Acton is a conservative Christian pressure group: part of the tactic here is to play down such an angle in favour of apparently logical, secular arguments. Some of these arguments (notably that that gay civil unions would somehow diminish other "non-procreative relationships … such as an unmarried son caring for his invalid father") are far-fetched in the extreme, and were effectively addressed in response by lawyer and former Fulbright scholar David Friar, but that's not the point.

The point is, why was Gregg there in the first place? Why have we allowed our debate to be colonised by a foreign religious organisation whose values have little to do with us as a society? Do we ask the imams of the Middle East for advice on how we treat women? After all, we manage to get through our own discussions on environmental law without inviting Acton to advise us (the institute has long campaigned against environmental regulations and is a special friend to its corporate donor, the oil company Exxon Mobil). Actually, like our own Maxim Institute, Acton derives most of its funding not from corporations, but from less transparent private interests. (Craig Young noted recently that Maxim's sugar-daddy, the Derek Corporation, doesn't always apply the standard of ethics its pressure group preaches.)

It is true that both sides of this debate have tried to argue at times from each other's turf. Thus, the civil union lobby has cited a number of essentially conservative arguments - not least that the two bills will prevent millions of dollars worth of double-dipping on benefits by same-sex couples - and Maxim has frequently euphemised its God into "the absolute" to avoid frightening the horses.

They're a little less guarded on friendly turf. Maxim's Amanda McGrail engineered a divorce between marriage and love in her comments to the church-based meeting we documented here recently ("marriage itself is not a human right. It's an institution and it's not about whether you love somebody or not ...") and Maxim's director, Bruce Logan, was not holding back at all in his recent speech to the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards: human rights should not guide the law and they ought not pertain to groups. We should never have dispensed with our old, rather cruel divorce laws. Our legal bedrock was handed down to us by God (this belief, it should be noted, has historically been deployed in support of slavery, the treatment of women as property and a few other things we now regard as a breach of human rights). And "the legal privileges of marriage are not awarded because the partners are in love, or even committed to each other, but because their relationship is of public consequence."

The problem here is that it simply isn't what the vast majority of people believe about their own lives. Why do people get married? Because, New Zealanders will tell you, they love each other. What is the overwhelming precondition for marriage? Love, they will tell you. If we are, as Maxim commands, to engineer a divorce between love and marriage, then what's to stand in the way of arranged marriages? If marriage's status as a source of social stability is to trump all other considerations, would it not be appropriate for families to prevent their offspring from entering socially unsuitable unions, however much they think they love each other?

But that is not the way we act, and civil unions are not marriage. There are 300,000 people in New Zealand living in de facto relationships, our household among them. Although our status is a personal, rather than political matter, I can't help but feel that it has become politicised by the moral conservative lobby. And I could do without Judith Collins MP informing me that I am less "committed" to my home and family than she is (if she genuinely had the courage of her convictions, she would be railing against one or two of her fellow MPs, and leaving my house alone). Perhaps, one day, we'll go and get ourselves a civil union on principle.

You have to feel a little bit sorry for the MPs who have come into possession of the affadavit sworn by Yvonne Dossetter, the former partner of Ross Meurant. The original document was given to TVNZ by Dossetter in the course of its investigation into Winston Peters' conduct during the scampi business, and part of it has been seen to have at least some substance: Ross Meurant, accused of working for both Peters and Suminovich Fisheries, resigned to escape a conflict of interest, and save his boss the embarrassment of an inquiry. But we now know what TVNZ did: that Dossetter had also alleged that Meurant had received "substantial payments" from Suminovich for delivery to Peters.

A more serious allegation against a sitting MP could hardly be imagined - and , having been unable to verify it, TVNZ did not bring it to air. The MPs on the select committee who received the affadavit - the Greens' Ian Ewan-Street was handed it anonymously and passed it on to National's David Carter - probably did not have the same latitude. Carter passed it on to the Speaker, who batted it back requesting specific grounds for an inquiry. So Carter - who looked highly uncomfortable on TV last night - must either let the matter drop or make an allegation that Peters will regard as no less than a declaration of war. Labour will happily sit on the sidelines for this one, feeling that it will only bring New Zealand First closer as a potential coalition partner next year. Perhaps Ralston was right when he told me the scampi story was "a slow burner".

Meanwhile Slate's Jack Shafer gets stuck into Michael Moore - not for his film Fahrenheit 911, which appears to have been well enough fact-checked for a work of opinion - but for Moore's off-the-ball actions. Specifically, hurling around libel threats which he would not wish on himself. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie; less impressed, as ever, by Moore's personal demeanour. He's not the only one of course: Ray Bradbury needs to get over himself and Christopher Hitchens is in full-bluster mode about it all. Anyway, the film's already on the P2P networks if you can't wait.