Title: Civil Unions Bill: Dalziel on why it's needed Credit: RadioNZ/ Features Friday 12th March 2004 - 12:00pm1079046000 Article: 164 Rights
Before she lost her ministerial portfolios Labour MP Lianne Dalziel was the Associate Minister of Justice in charge of introducing the Civil Union bill which will allow heterosexual or same-sex couples to register their relationships under the law. The government is also introducing accompanying legislation, known as an omnibus bill, designed to eliminate any discriminatory measures within existing laws against these kinds of relationships. National Radio asked Lianne Dalziel, just before her fall, to explain why the changes are needed. DALZIEL: It means that those who want to have their relationships acknowledged in a legal way will be able to do so, its something that's not available for same-sex couples at the moment. Marriage is the only option for opposite-sex couples if they want to make a legal commitment to each other in that sense. The second bill is to remove discrimination which exists in our laws with respect to different forms of relationships people are in. At the moment, for example, an opposite-sex couple who live together are means tested against each other if they want to gain a benefit... the income of a partner who is working would be taken into the equation for a non-working partner, and that may mean the partner may not have access to a benefit. If they're a same-sex couple the same rules don't apply: with a same-sex couple, because it's not recognised in the law, you can have two people living together, one earning a very high salary while the other person has no salary and is able to access the benefit system. NATIONAL RADIO: So is the reason behind this a financial one? DALZIEL: No, its an obligation that a previous Government entered into on behalf of New Zealand, but one I support very strongly. Our laws need to come up to date to comply with the human rights act, our obligations into the New Zealand bill of rights act and in order to ensure that we're compliant and that we're not subject as a Government to complaints being made about how we're noncompliant with our own human rights legislation. That's the reason for the second bill, it recognises adult relationships in whatever form they take. NATIONAL RADIO: In relation to the second bill - and in particular section 63 of the social security act which is related to the provision of benefits and things like that - how will the idea of or the nature of the concept of marriage change. DALZIEL: Well the rules will be applied equally. There will be a lead-in time for people who are living together who are in same-sex relationships, and the reason for that is that the current law discriminates in their favour, they're able to access the benefit system without their partners income means test. Under the new rule there will be a partnership means test. Because we know there will be quite a significant impact with respect to some people in the gay and lesbian community, we felt it was important to give a lead-in time so that the new rules would not apply for two years. Now this is not the same with a couple entering into a civil union... if they're taking on the legal recognition of their relationship under the civil union legislation then the new rules will apply straight away. NATIONAL RADIO: Because it's in the nature of marriage? DALZIEL: No, its a kind of quid-pro-quo... if the state is going to recognise the relationship, which we don't at the moment except in some individual statute law, the state doesn't have a mechanism for legally recognising their relationship. Why on earth should they be compelled to meet a relationship test that the state doesn't recognise for other purposes? I think that's a very strong argument coming from the same-sex community. They are unrecognised by the state in terms of their relationship, for the purposes of the state. My view is that once we have addressed that anomaly, once they have the opportunity to enter into a civil union, and if they do enter into a civil union which is registered under law, then at that point they would make themselves subject to the normal rules which apply to a relationship. NATIONAL RADIO: So what do you think the impact will be once this legislation is passed? Have you had any assessment as yet in terms of benefits, of how much the government will save? DALZIEL: No, the regulatory impact statement hasn't been done yet, I'm sure that with respect to benefits there will be a cost benefit to the government and the registration system won't cost anything because it is based on cost recovery. As soon as the regulatory impact statement is completed it will be attached to the bill and that will be tabled in the house so that everyone will be able to see what the cost benefit analysis is. NATIONAL RADIO: Is it possible to divorce under a civil union, how does that work? DALZIEL: It's not possible to divorce under the marriage laws either, in fact the expression these days is “dissolution” and that results from an irreconcilable breakdown which is established by two years living apart. These rules would apply to a civil union. So in a civil union situation you won't just be able to opt out of it and enter into another the next day. You would have to establish that the relationship had broken down irreconcilably and indeed that you had lived apart for two years. NATIONAL RADIO: Conservative opponents say that the difference between a civil union, as proposed by the government, and a marriage is one of semantics and that the state, by recognising same-sex relationships, basically undermines the constitution of marriage which is established by the courts [as being] between a man and a woman. DALZIEL: I totally reject that as a proposition. We're not touching the marriage act. Marriage will still only be available in New Zealand between a man and a woman. I am sure that there will be those within a range of communities who will say that that should be a matter which is addressed... I don't accept that. I actually believe that there is a stronger view, not only within same-sex communities but also within heterosexual community, a very strong view that an alternative to marriage is what they're seeking. Marriage is the exclusive commitment between two people for the sake of sharing the rest of their lives together (and we all wish that it was always that way but it isn't always that way, people don't always stay together forever). Marriage is the bringing together of two people who want to make that commitment, to register their relationship. I would have thought that those who support marriage would actually support civil union for those other couples who don't want to enter into marriage. And I would have thought that those in same-sex relationships would support the idea of giving some structure and support to the longevity of the relationship... because its the quality of the relationship that matters most of all. NATIONAL RADIO: Why not have same-sex marriages? DALZIEL: I'm in an unusual situation with this bill... I've not been in this situation before, I am the associate minister of justice and it is in that capacity that I am responsible for the introduction of this bill. It is a government bill but it is the subject of a conscience vote and therefore I have to gather 61 people together to support the introduction of the bill and its referral to a select committee and at the end of the day I have to find that number again for it to pass through the house, I don't believe that in the New Zealand parliament there is a desire to extend the marriage act to include same-sex couples. The marriage act at the moment covers a man marrying a woman, a woman marrying a man and that is it, and that is the way it will remain. NATIONAL RADIO: If we take the Quilter case for example, where the court of appeal ruled that fact that a marriage is between a man and a woman. But one of the judges, Justice Thomas, said that gay and lesbians were effectively excluded from full membership of society because of this and referred the matter back to Parliament. Isn't this showing a lack of courage here? I mean it is creating another form of discrimination, possibly an improved position but certainly not the same position. DALZIEL: Well, the courts in the United States and other places have started to challenge laws passed in those states for that very reason. I think it was the Massachusetts Supreme Court that recently decided that a law offering the civil union alternative did not meet the human rights standard of the US constitution. We have a slightly different situation in New Zealand, we don't have the written constitution of the United States model, we're introducing legislation that provides for the legal recognition of relationships so we are going through 160 statutes and addressing anomalies that exist. And as part of that process I believe that by offering a civil union option to all couples, same sex or opposite sex, that we are applying with our bill of rights and our human rights legislation, it may well be that this will be challenged at the select committee. It may well be that this will be challenged ultimately in a court of law, but we already have the court of appeals saying that the marriage act is between a man and a woman and I don't believe that there is the will of parliament to change that rule. NATIONAL RADIO: You talk about needing 61 votes, effectively, for this legislation to pass. I understand that within Labour, for example, there's not unanimity about this legislation, even though it's a government bill. How are you actually going about getting the numbers for this. DALZIEL: Talking to people, letting them know what these issues are. Certainly the vast majority of the Labour caucus have indicated support at least for the first reading. I think that we've got the numbers to introduce it. I do want to provide people with any additional information that they might need to take the bill through the rest of its stages, it'd be pretty useless to introduce it and then not have the support of the parliament to pass it through all its stages but the advantage of it being introduced even with people not making that longer term commitment to the bill is that then it gets to the select committee and then all of these issues can be thrashed out, this is actually about recognising relationships and actually encouraging a legal commitment which follows the emotional commitment that two people have made to each other. Adding another option is actually stronger than encouraging people to live together without having any way of having their relationship legally recognised. NATIONAL RADIO: Bruce Logan, director of the Maxim Institute, regards this as being possibly more important in a cultural sense (obviously he's an opponent to it) than, say, the prostitution law reform [legislation] was. They were particularly vocal opponents of that particular bill and they helped make it a near run thing in terms of passing. Are you concerned about groups like that lobbying MPs? DALZIEL: No, I'm not, provided people are able to consider a balanced point of view. I think the Maxim Institute should put their point out there but I think that, when their point of view is assessed against the obligation that New Zealand has to meet its own human rights standard that this parliament set over a decade ago, it is important that it is able to be seen in that context. A lot of the people that I have spoken to have said this is a good thing because it encourages people to think very carefully before they make that commitment of living together and it really does create an environment that supports them staying together. So this is actually about quality relationships, not moving from one relationship to another. And for those that say it undermines marriage well I guess you can say that I've been a failure in that regard, I've had one marriage that's failed, I didn't want the marriage to end, [but] at the end of the day if someone doesn't want to stay living with you, doesn't want to honour the commitments they've made to you, then there is nothing that the other partner can do about that. I am now in a very happy marriage and I believe that I will be in this marriage until the day that I die. I want to have an environment where anyone can say that they've had been able to make] their relationship, that commitment if they want to make that commitment, public. If they want to register their relationship and have it recognised by the state I want everyone to be able to say that. footnote: The government had hoped to have the Civil Unions legislation introduced by the end of this month. It is unclear yet whether this timetable has been altered by Dalziel's resignation from her portfolios. In her absence the Civil Unions bill will be handled by Associate Justice Minister David Benson-Pope. RadioNZ/ - 12th March 2004    
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