|Founded in 2006, Family First is our chief (if not only) adversary in the struggle for marriage equality. What is the organisation currently up to, and what do its strategies tell us about the strength of the organisation on the eve of the second reading of the Marriage Equality Bill?
Firstly, what do we know about Bob McCoskrie, and what does it imply? McCoskrie is a key speaker at the forthcoming "World Congress of Families", a US Christian Right dominated international gathering of antigay, anti-abortion and antifeminist organisations to be held in Sydney in May 2013. His biographical citation is revealing.
We learn that Bob McCoskrie has a Masters degree in Commerce, is a qualified teacher and lectured in a tertiary institution on accounting and tax law before becoming a school and community based social worker, although his biographical section says nothing about whether he actually has tertiary qualifications in social work and social science. If not, then how is he qualified to talk about social services, medical and social scientific questions to do with issues like same-sex parenting? In 1994, McCoskrie founded the Papatoetoe Adolescent Christian Trust. That lasted about eight years, before he joined Radio Rhema as a talkback host in 2002. In 2006, he founded the Christian Right pressure group Family First, which has become New Zealand's leading Christian Right organisation after the collapse of the Christian Heritage Party, the organisational chaos of the Kiwi Party, and the Maxim Institute's transition toward fiscal conservative emphasis after Logangate in 2005. The organisation was one the ringleaders of a campaign against the Clark administration/Green ban on parental corporal punishment in 2006, resulting in a nine million dollar referendum in 2009. It regularly publishes Value Your Vote guides at election periods, holds annual Christian Right "Forum on the Family" networking sessions and is a registered charity under the Charities Act 2004.
With those details about the Family First leader out of the way, what has the organisation been doing more recently? As I've observed in the past in this column, Family First has three primary websites- Family First's main one, Bob McCoskrie's "McBlog" and their anti-equality front group, "Protect Marriage," of which Bob McCoskrie is webmaster. There is significant overlap of material. Much of it is sourced from overseas Christian Right pressure groups, such as the Family Research Council (US), Christian Institute (UK), Lifesite (Canada), Mercatornet (Australia) and right-wing UK tabloid newspapers like the Daily Telegraph. During the Marriage Equality Bill campaign, that has now extended to the anti-equality, US conservative Catholic Witherspoon Institute and its online journal Public Discourse, probably for the continuing Mark Regnerus debacle.
At the last Forum on the Family, I noticed that there had been a sharp drop in fundamentalist small business donors for that annual national New Zealand Christian Right networking event, as well as the appearance of the US Christian Right-dominated World Congress of Families on the donor list instead. Bob McCoskrie is listed as a speaker at the latest World Congress of Families event in Sydney. Will any referendum against marriage equality in New Zealand be funded by the US Christian Right "bully pulpit", in that case?
I have wondered about that. I have also noticed that compared to overseas debates about marriage equality, ours is a relatively low-key affair. With the global recession and its local New Zealand equivalent well in train, I would speculate that Family First's former small business and individual donors may have dried up. In any case, it has concentrated on website misinformation provision and hasn't engaged in wider propaganda distribution like presentation of substantial billboard placards, newspaper, television and radio advertisements, or even holding public meetings against the bill.
These may be symptoms of a reduced donor base and financial restraints. There has been a single exception to that, which occurred during the select committee process before the Government Administration Select Committee, which consisted of clichés and imported rhetoric from US Christian Right opponents of marriage equality like the "National Organisation for Marriage" and Family Research Council. More recently, this has been duplicated in an attempt to lobby "possible defectors" from the first reading to vote against the Marriage Equality Bill's second and third readings.
It may also be a symptom of Family First's current financial constraints and reduced donor base that it has only really ramped up its campaign against marriage equality again during the last week or so, after the Government Administration select committee reported back in favour of the passage of the Marriage Equality Bill. This began with media releases attacking the objectivity of the select committee and the alleged 'truncation' of select committee appearances for submitters, due to their scale and also due to the fact that some submissions on both sides of the debate were brief paragraphs, or pro forma declarations, organised by either Family First on the opposing side, or Marriage Equality New Zealand on our own.
There have been few substantive points made in this context. Family First has relied on sideshows like teenage ingénue Grace Carroll's upset feelings about the alleged conduct of some members of the Government Administration select committee. Apparently, though, it is okay to engage in abusive and insulting remarks to older gay men like John Joliff and Des Smith if one's name is (National List MP) Khawaljit Singh Bakshi and an opponent of the bill, however. It has criticised the representative nature of pro-bill submissions from the Public Service Association, New Zealand Nurses Organisation and other trade unions, while never disclosing its own level of organisational membership, or the actual membership of some of the tiny fundamentalist sects opposed to the bill. Or it has focused on celebrant status and whether organisations (and now individual celebrants) can opt out of undertaking same-sex weddings.
In a more sinister twist to this, McCoskrie has reprinted overseas UK Christian Institute media releases that have stated that hotel owners, wedding photographers, wedding cake bakers, fundamentalist public service registrars engaged in secular occupations and other fundamentalists working outside the core religious occupation of ordained church minister should be free to discriminate against lesbian or gay couples on the basis of sexual orientation. This is service provision and accommodation discrimination and it has been illegal to do so within the ambit of the Human Rights Act 1993. Even if the Marriage Equality Bill fell at its second or third reading, that would continue to be the case. Does McCoskrie want to weaken our anti-discrimination special discriminatory 'rights?'
And then there's the brown herring about polygamy and polyamory, which can be more easily dealt with, and have been. The Internet has enabled the easy distribution of court case content and opinion from overseas, and one of the primary recent Commonwealth decisions in this context has been the British Columbian Bountiful opinion against the removal of anti-polygamy Section 293 of the Canadian Criminal Code, on the basis that polygamy seems to carry increased risk of spousal violence and child sexual abuse in its national context. To date, the Bountiful reference case has not been challenged or overturned in the Canadian judicial context, so it remains good law.
As for polyamory, no international polyamorist rights group has currently embarked on any detailed legislative campaign for polyamorist spousal rights. Most polyamorist groups are focused on debates about the relationship ethics of polyamory and more recently, media monitoring in the context of the newly formed Polyamory Action League in Australia. In any case, given the relatively small amount of social scientific research about polyamory to date, there is too little now to ground any such legislative campaign against barriers to polyamorist spousal rights.
Some propaganda avenues have simply been abandoned or neglected. Initially, Family First tried to use Pacific Island communities as a wedge against Labour support for marriage equality, but ran quickly into two significant problems. One is that despite McCoskrie's Papatoetoe Christian Adolescent Trust days, he seems to have shallow connections to fundamentalist Pacific Island groups. The second is the relative poverty of such sects compared to the general public, which may have resulted in one Tongan fundamentalist South Auckland picket and several Pacific Island fundamentalist church submissions against the Marriage Equality Bill from that quarter. However, like Destiny Church before it, and for much the same reason, poverty and lack of material resources inhibits political participation. In the case of Chinese and Korean fundamentalist churches, part of the problem may be the absence of linguistic fluency and translation of materials into Cantonese and Korean languages- and the fact that Family First is so strongly allied to New Zealand First, given the latter's anti-Asian immigrant bias. It can also be accused of carpetbagging, given its failure to focus properly on issues of real concern to Pacific Island families, like problem debt levels and their devastating consequences.
Another failure is Maori outreach. They have merely cited fringe 'shock jocks' like John Tamihere and Wille Jackson, talkback radio hosts on Radio Live, and not elaborated on that, probably given Louisa Wall's strong Maori community profile. Added to which, Tamihere is poison within many mainstream communities, given his disparaging comments about iwi leadership and rabid misogynist attacks on assertive Maori women (or indeed, any assertive woman).
Moreover, in some cases, they are ignoring potential wedges within their own ranks. To some extent, this has been assisted by conservative Catholics like Right to Life New Zealand, which appears to be operating an unspoken 'gentlemen's agreement' in this context not to criticise Family First's obsession with binding citizens referenda against marriage equality. This has occurred despite anti-euthanasia conservative Catholic concerns that binding citizens referenda have been used to introduce or maintain access to legalised voluntary euthanasia and physicians assisted suicide in Switzerland and the United States. However, they cannot do so indefinitely, particularly if Maryan Street's End of Life Choices Bill is drawn out of the ballot box at some point in the near future, or soon after the passage of marriage equality.
Another potential wedge is extremism within the ranks of opposition to marriage equality. One of them is the laughable fundamentalist tabloid conspiracy theorist Ian Wishart, who ranted and raved about pro-gay 'public relations' strategies (from a US Christian Right source), made facile and derogatory remarks about gay men and pedophilia (ignoring Graham Capill's existence and substantive social science information to the contrary), citations from US Christian Right junk science "sources" and even cited the faltering and dying "exgay" movement. This venomous rhetoric may have inflicted major damage on the credibility of the Christian Right cause against marriage equality. Another potential liability may be the venomous and intemperate Australian fundamentalist conspiracy theorist Bill Muehlenberg, who is in the same category.
On the final day before the second reading, Family First/McBlog/Protect Marriage simply seemed to be rehashing old points from past, imported anti-equality propaganda. These included Ian Bassett's questionable legal opinion related to marriage celebrants, fundamentalist microparty leader Colin Craig's supporting opinion, Witherspoon Institute pseudo-gay 'anti-marriage' figures, and 'diseased pariah' rhetoric about 'gay syphilis.' Unfortunately for Family First, this has been reprinted in a scurrilous local Central Auckland pamphlet against marriage equality (although there is no evidence to suggest that it is actually directly associated with the organisation, as it lacks the organisational logo. It may have simply been appropriated from their website by more extreme opponents of marriage equality).
Compared to the United States, New Zealand's own experience of the marriage equality debate has been comparatively mild and civil. It seems to resemble Western European debates about marriage equality in other highly secularised western countries like Scandinavia, Spain and the Netherlands, where religious social conservatism is marginalised, secularisation is strong and social liberalism is predominant. Family First may be in the wrong country. Only tomorrow's second vote on marriage equality will be able to tell us.
Not Recommended: Family First: http://www.familyfirst.org.nz/ Protect Marriage: http://www.protectmarriage.org.nz/ McBlog: http://www.bobmccoskrie.com/ Bob McCoskrie bio: http:/www.wcfsydney2013.org.au/speakers/keynote-speakers Ian Wishart: "Exploding the Myths about Same-Sex Marriage" Investigate: October/November 2012: 10-22. Craig Young - 12th March 2013