|Dr. Don Brash The National Party has recently offered an olive branch to gay and lesbian voters – but are they trying to be all things to all people? GayNZ.com spoke to National Party leader Don Brash. In launching the new gay wing of the National Party a few weeks ago at Flesh nightclub, Auckland Central-based National MP Pansy Wong said she was determined to change the "misconceptions" that people have about National.
Presumably she meant anti-gay attitudes, which she acknowledged are certainly present in some quarters, but qualified this in an interview with express by describing National as a "broad-based" party which was "more about individual choice", as opposed to Labour which she described as "too collective". But every good political party has a leader, a visionary, someone in the driver's seat. For National, that man is Don Brash. How does he feel about the unfortunately-named "Pansy's Pansies"? "I'm very relaxed about it," he says. "I didn't promote the idea, but of course I wouldn't discourage it. I'm delighted to see such a group established, not least because I think there's been a perception that gays and lesbians might be more inclined to support Labour than National, and I'm pleased that we can knock that idea on the head." Why would that perception exist? "I think possibly because we don't have any openly gay members of caucus, and there are clearly one or two openly gay members of the Labour caucus, meaning that we are less tolerant or sympathetic towards gays and lesbians than Labour is. But of course historically we've had some very strong supporters of gay and lesbian rights in the National Party, so I don't think there's a good reason to think that." But when the deputy leader of the National Party says quite openly that he will not be supporting civil unions, the single most important piece of legislation affecting gays and lesbians since the Human Rights Act 1993, and refuses point blank to talk to any gay media, you could be forgiven for thinking that although there are some “strong supporters” in National, it's not a party to be trusted as unwavering on gay and lesbian issues. “I'm sure that in every political party there are people who have quite strong feelings on the civil union bill, I won't speak for Gerry in that area, but I know also that Gerry has at least one quite close friend who is gay, and as recently as a few days ago he was extolling this guy's merits to me very enthusiastically,” says Dr Brash. The ol' “some of my best friends are gay” argument? Didn't George Bush try that one too? “That may be right, but he wasn't doing this in public or for effect, he was simply talking about someone he knew well, and was recommending to me, then he casually mentioned he was gay. So I guess what I'm saying is, whatever Gerry's view on the civil union bill, I don't think he's personally antagonistic to gays.” So where do other senior members of the National Party, and indeed Dr Brash himself, stand on civil unions? “I don't know. I literally don't know. It will be a conscience vote, and I haven't canvassed it, I don't think it's been canvassed by anyone else in the caucus. I suspect there will certainly be some who will be opposed to it, but equally I'm sure there will be some who'll support it. And I've indicated publicly that subject to seeing the fine print, my present intention is to support it.” One of the aims of the civil union bill is to give same-sex couples access to same rights and protections that opposite-sex couples have when they choose to get married. The institution of marriage is constantly described, usually by religious people, as something special and sacred that should not be tarnished by allowing gays and lesbians access to it. In these times of severe PC backlash, does it not seem – ironically – politically correct to be spending time drafting two whole bills when a few words of amendment in the Marriage Act would be far less wasteful of time and taxpayer funds? “I think the word marriage has still got very strong connotations of being between people of different sexes, and I am comfortable enough with that tradition. It's also being thought of to some extent a religious ceremony and in some denominations marriage is regarded as a sacrament, so its a quasi-religious thing between a man and a woman, so I am comfortable leaving that term marriage with that connotation.” So does Dr Brash believe we are a very religious country, then? “No. No, I don't think we are. I think we are substantially a secular society, but whether we're secular or religious there's a lot to be said for separating church and state. I think that's one of our fundamental values. And in that situation, there's quite a lot to be said in having a means by which two people can contract to each other outside of that context.” If Dr Brash acknowledges that we are substantially a secular society, and believes in the separation of church and state, then why pander to the religious right whom he believes to be in the minority? If the Catholic Prime Minister of Canada could support gay marriage, why not Dr Brash? Could it be a case of National trying to be all things to all people? “National wants every vote they can get, frankly, and I would be very concerned indeed if gay and lesbian people thought that they were unwelcome in National... we have already at least one, probably two, or maybe three people seeking National Party candidacy in the election next year who are gay.” Is the man who stands for everything a man who, in effect, stands for nothing? He also shares some common ground with the Maxim Institute, one of the most virulent and well-funded anti-gay organisations this country has ever seen. “Maxim certainly maintains contacts with us, I suspect they try to make contacts with all political parties. I visited Maxim in Christchurch... when I meet with them they're pretty direct about what they want to achieve, there's not much doubt about where they're coming from. I respect their concerns and their view, I respect their support for the family, but that doesn't make me anti-gay at all. I can say I support the ideal of having children raised in a two- parent family because I think that is the optimal situation, but it doesn't make me the least bit embarrassed about being pro-gay or pro-lesbian.” I doubt there are many people who don't have support for the family, but Maxim only support one type of family, the two-parent heterosexually married household. Dig deeper and you'll find that extends to “traditional” gender roles as well. Are these views not diametrically opposed to those of Dr Brash, who is supportive of same-sex parenting and believes women should have the same opportunities as men? “Well it's different, I wouldn't call it diametrically opposed. If Maxim were to say the best family model is one where the child is brought up with their natural parents, I would say yes I can go along with that. But that's not the only likely outcome, and I can see having a child brought up by same-sex adults who love each other is a great deal more attractive than some of their other options available.” Maxim are one of the major proponents of the PC backlash, widening the definition of political correctness as each day passes to encompass anything that doesn't fit their agenda, which Dr Brash acknowledges is openly “conservative and Christian based”. How would he define political correctness? “I'm not sure, frankly. I contest to being a little ambivalent on this in that I can understand some of the concerns of people who have promoted a PC agenda... it's become a term of abuse in a sense. I was asked by one of the newspapers to write a piece on political correctness and I actually declined because I'm not quite sure what it does mean. It means different things to different people.” Just as the words of Dr Brash may mean different things to different people. Gay and lesbian voters are likely to still be cautious about supporting National, which would appear to be confirmed by the low numbers attending the first “Pansy's Pansies” meeting. Here's a thought, a whimsy if you will: Perhaps next time it might be an idea not to hold the meeting at the local meat market? I don't recall seeing any political meetings recently convened at The Loaded Hog or The Bower or The Cook, so why Flesh? “Well, actually political parties do campaign in exactly those sorts of places,” says Dr Brash. “I'm not a great frequenter of bars gay or straight, but occasionally when campaigning I'll walk into a bar and shake hands and introduce myself and tell people why they should vote National.” Why should gay and lesbian voters trust National? “I could turn that around and say why should you not trust National? Both major political parties have at times said things and done things which were less than honest, which have eroded the trust which voters have, superannuation for example. But I don't think there's any reason why the National Party should be less trustworthy than others.” Chris Banks - 26th April 2004