Article Title:National pays
Author or Credit:Charles Chauvel
Published on:14th December 2006 - 12:00 pm
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Story ID:1515
Text:Charles Chauvel In most fields, formal legal equality for gay and lesbian people now exists in New Zealand. As such, our Country is seen as a leader amongst the liberal social democracies with which we usually like to compare ourselves. Obviously, we shouldn't be complacent. We need to defend advances already won against an increasingly militant fundamentalism, and its ally, the ‘anti-pc' movement. When conditions allow, the remaining formal legal barriers need to go. And we need to keep working to change the attitudes that prevent us from achieving true equality of participation at every level of our society. I've worked on virtually every aspect of law reform affecting our communities since the homosexual law reform in 1986. Naturally enough, people most often reflect on the enormous changes accomplished over the past seven years – notably the Civil Union Act and the related changes to relationship status law – and as a Labour MP, I'm pleased and proud that these were accomplished under a Labour-led government. But it should not be forgotten that we made great progress on many levels in the 1990s as well. Katherine O'Regan was a National Party associate minister who spearheaded the amendment of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, along with the Human Rights Act, to make ‘sexual orientation' a prohibited ground of discrimination under our law. Most Labour MPs supported that move at the time, but so did enough senior members of the National Party for it to pass. That was a significant moment in our human rights history, because it showed that a powerful advance could be made on our issues in a bipartisan fashion, with little consequent danger of it being rolled back at a future date. It is no coincidence that this period was the last time in our recent history that the National Party enjoyed sufficient electoral success to form a government, because it had an influential liberal wing, in step with most New Zealanders' social consciences, represented in Parliament. Fast-forward 13 years to the eve of 2007, and unfortunately, very different political conditions exist. Some media hype would have us believe that a wave of urban liberals has renewed the National Party caucus, filling it with folk who ought to have progressive views on issues of importance to us. The new leadership team of John Key and Bill English is said to have cemented this trend. For our sakes, I wish that hype were true. But unfortunately, a glance at the voting statistics on the Civil Union Act – the last time one of our major legal issues came before Parliament – shows that it's not. Let's start with the new National Party leadership. John Key didn't vote for civil unions. When quizzed, he did what he has done on other important social issues, like abortion. He waffled, telling one interviewer that they were all about gay marriage in disguise, admitting to another that they were no such thing, and then claiming to a third that he was just voting in accordance with what he thought his electorate would want. Unlike Bill English, who clearly exercises enormous power in today's National Party, John seems to be an instinctive social liberal. What's more, he is a pleasant guy to have a conversation with, and he is clearly someone with intellectual ability. But to be a leader, he is going to have to stop telling people what he thinks they want to hear, and start taking a stand on some of the hard issues. If and when he does, I hope he goes with what I take to be his natural liberal instincts, rather than what the National Party's focus groups tell him to think. Moving to look at the new National frontbench, the picture gets a lot worse. Of Key, English, Gerry Brownlee, Simon Power, Nick Smith, Tony Ryall, Judith Collins, Katherine Rich, Maurice Williamson and David Carter, just one - Katherine Rich -voted for the Civil Union Act. All but a couple of the remainder have parliamentary records that are breathtakingly homophobic. The ‘new look' backbench doesn't look a lot better. Again, there are some perfectly nice people on it. But we now know that many of the so-called new urban liberals saw nothing wrong with putting their hands out for support and resources from the ultra-conservative Exclusive Brethren during the election campaign. To be fair, it's true that Labour still has one or two MPs in its ranks who have yet to reach full enlightenment on our issues. And there are some very brave liberals indeed in the National Party caucus. People like Clem Simich and Pansy Wong have consistently voted and spoken in favour of equality for gay and lesbian New Zealanders, and they deserve credit for their courage in doing so. One of the lessons of the 1990s is that for human rights progress to be durable, it is desirable to achieve it with bipartisan consensus. Another happens to be that to achieve electoral success, the National Party needs to contain a number of true and decisive liberals within its ranks, including in its aspiring leadership. On the evidence to date, the leadership, and much of both the front and backbenches, fails this important test. In doing so, they fail us. Charles Chauvel - 14th December 2006    
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