Title: Testing Labour's bottle Credit: Jay Bennie Features Thursday 24th June 2004 - 12:00pm1088035200 Article: 310 Rights
As parliament this afternoon considers the Civil Unions Bill which confers legal status on non-marriage straight and same-sex relationships Labour and the Relationships (Statutory References) Bill there is an uneasy feeling that the Labour government may not have the numbers to push them through to becoming law. The main signal of problems within Labour's caucus came at the eleventh hour last week when the Relationships Bill joined the Civil Unions Bill as a conscience vote, a move which variously bewildered and angered many in the gay community which had thought we could at least count on that Bill ratifying the long-ago passed Human Rights legislation. Associate Justice Minister David Benson-Pope agrees the unsettling last minute change may not have been a good idea. “Hindsight is always 20-20 as they say. I think that it may have been easier to have signaled it as a conscience vote from the beginning, but the fact that it is a conscience vote now, should not be taken as a signal that we are any less committed to seeing this legislation passed through Parliament. Clearly the nature of the vote was changed due to a significant number of Labour MPs voicing strong objection to being forced to vote yes by a party vote. It should be remembered that all Labour MPs sign an agreement that they will vote along the party line on any Bill the Leadership declares a party vote Bill. According to Benson-Pope the Civil Unions Bill was established early on as a conscience vote “as some people have strongly held (and often religious-based) views on the issue that encompass, among other things, same-sex relationships.” In other words, Labour's conservative MPs (yes, there is such a thing) kicked up a stink. Consider for instance the position of Taito Philip Field MP, representing a heavily Pacific Islander constituency in South Auckland. Despite the government's philosophy that the Relationships Bill is a human rights issue, those conservative MPs obviously believe it also involves implicit recognition of civil unions. “Since the establishment of civil unions has already been agreed as a conscience issue, it was agreed, and seems a logical progression, to also make the Relationships Bill a conscience vote also,” says Benson-Pope The upshot was that the sure to pass relationships Bill got demoted in the eyes of glbt folk. The government appeared to be loosing its bottle. But "No," says the Associate minister, "the Government is committed to both Bills." Political logic says that by releasing its MPs to vote according to their own conscience Labour may loose a few of its own number but could pick up votes from the opposition who would otherwise have voted against Labour as a matter of course. Despite that theory, Labour's commitment to equal human rights and protections under the law for glbt folk appears top be less steady that we had been taking for granted. Benson-Pope says we shouldn't worry. "Conscience votes are often held, as a matter of convention, on moral and ethical issues which many people would regard as involving advancing fundamental human rights. This reflects the complexity of beliefs and values in our society. The Government can nevertheless progress reforming legislation while still allowing conscience votes." No doubt we'll be listening closely to Parliament this afternoon to see if he's right. Jay Bennie - 24th June 2004    
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