When I applied to become a resident ahead of moving to New Zealand, in 1997, I did it under the ‘de-facto partner of a citizen’ category. Since my partner happened to be a woman, the requirement was for us to have been together for at least two years, which we had to scrupulously document. Had my partner been a man, it would have been four years. The provision was far more advanced than anything my country had to offer to foreigners or indeed citizens – Italy still doesn’t recognise same-sex couples in any shape or form, and grants some responsibilities but very few rights or benefits to heterosexual unmarried couples – yet this struck me as such a casual, callous piece of discrimination. It said that same-sex couples had to be twice as committed to each other as we were in order to be recognised, while married couples barely had to be committed at all. Clearly I was moving to a country that had made much progress – I knew little of the historical struggles – but a paradoxical aspect of that progress was that it called attention to the extant discrimination. As it almost always does.
Eventually that immigration rule was amended. Then civil unions were brought in. (My partner and I availed ourselves.) Then, as of last week, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was removed from marriage itself. This wasn’t a government initiative, nor even the official policy of the main opposition party. It took the random selection of one of two private members’ bills from the ballot, in July of last year. The honour fell on the proposal by Labour’s Louisa Wall. It could just as easily have been the one signed by the Greens’ Kevin Hague.
The bill’s early steps were uncertain, so much so that a party strategist and a fellow MP of Wall’s own party publicly warned that this was a ‘distraction’ that would hurt Labour’s overall electoral prospects. Yet there was no mistaking the public mood. And when Prime Minister John Key – who is nothing if not adept at reading those signs – announced he would support the bill at least through to the committee stages, it became apparent that we wouldn’t be up for a battle this time. This would be a peaceful march.
What little opposition there was, it was clumsy and poorly organised, and could muster little beyond the occasional hate-filled brochure. There were no large demonstrations or well-orchestrated media campaigns of the kind that we have seen in France this year, or, in a minor key, when the civil union billed was passed in New Zealand less than a decade ago. The frank admission by conservative politician Paul Hutchison that he couldn’t ‘construct a strong enough intellectual, moral, health, or even spiritual argument’ against the bill eloquently expressed the impasse in which the traditional opposition to social reforms of this kind finds itself in this country. Even John Banks, an arch-conservative who fought tooth and nail against the law reforms of the 1980s, thought it unwise to station himself on the wrong side of history. In the end the bill passed by 77 votes to 44, and that’s including amongst the nays a number of functional abstentions by MPs who would have rather put the reform to a referendum.
On the day of the bill’s passing – as it had done with very few exceptions throughout the process – the New Zealand House of Representatives accounted for itself in a remarkable way. The waiata that concluded the session will stand as a historical moment of unity and pride in our collective capacity to engineer progress. It was truly moving, unique and, as some have said, ours.
There have been many eloquent and poignant speeches in the months and weeks leading up to marriage equality in New Zealand – including the one that turned a long-time semi-obscure Tory MP into an instant worldwide internet celebrity – but if I had to pick a single one it would have to be the speech that was given in front of Parliament last September by long time gay-rights campaigned Bill Logan. It was a reminder, both generous and gracious, that we owe the peaceful march we have enjoyed in the last eight months to the struggles that came before, and that were at times anything but peaceful. It is in the context of that much longer and as yet unfinished march that this latest reform can be viewed as a modest step forward – albeit highly symbolic, therefore essential – whose time had come. I recommend reading the whole speech, but I can’t find better words to conclude this post than Bill’s.
Thank you all for coming here today. We are optimistic about this. Thank you all for coming to be part of this modest step forward. Savour the moment.