|Tim Barnett MP In November this year, my partner Ramon Maniapoto and I will be celebrating our civil union. It will be at Waitetoko Marae, an historic complex of buildings set in a stunning location on the shores of Lake Taupo and – much more importantly – Ramon's home marae.
The event has been a long time coming, and – when I put into perspective the amount and the cost of the organisation involved – it is all very exciting. Such an occasion has personal and political edges. Given Ramon and my very different backgrounds, reflected in our network of whanau and friends, it will above all be a diverse and informal party, centred on an expression of our love for each other. Although such events are focussed on personal aspects, few would doubt that there is a political edge to civil unions and that the struggle of our communities to live a quiet and safe life and enjoy basic freedoms is celebrated during such events, overtly or covertly.
On the basis of current figures, ours will be civil union # 1150 or so since the first in April 2005. The opponents claimed that since only 0.001% of people are homosexual (an amount which they extrapolated from a census which also found that a high number of people had Jedi as their religious belief, which may indicate that you cannot always believe what you read…..) hardly anyone would use it, and (at the same time) that it would fundamentally undermine marriage. Such inconsistencies, combined with the appalling image of the black-shirts marching on Parliament, consigned their deeply negative campaign to history. They were wrong, we were right, and so life moves on.
In Parliament (sad to say!) little of our time is involved in tackling such big or memorable issues. The bread and butter life of an MP when in Parliament consist of reading, discussions and attending meetings, whether moulding party or Government policy, building the delicate coalitions of interests necessary to get matters through our finely balanced Parliament or reviewing proposed Government legislation (bills), often in Select Committee. We electorate MPs spend a similar amount of our lives in our Electorates, tackling individual and community problems, and flying the flag for our Party and for Parliament. List MPs also focus on electorates, and/or issues and population groups nationwide.
Rainbow MPs do have a particular role, even if (in contrast to myself and my three Labour Rainbow colleagues) our sole National Rainbow MP does not really accept the label or the responsibility. We are elected by our electorates or selected for good positions on our Party list for our general political skills. But of course our links with particular sections of society do play a part, not least because under our MMP voting system the party vote matters most and people who have been discriminated against tend to want to reward those who support them and oppose them who have harmed them. When those sections of society have struggled with discriminatory law, then they are political. Given that our history as Rainbow people is a truly shocking and grim one even in this kind little corner of the world, then no wonder we are especially political.
In a Parliament such as this one, our options for progress through law reform are limited, not least because there are agreements and relationships with other parties to honour if Labour is to remain in power. Other factors include the lack of strong demand for significant new law reform – the gaps around transgender rights are being examined by the Human Rights Commission inquiry, the debate on hate speech law has never really got beyond first base and provides very varied views within our community, the provocation/”gay panic defence” matter awaits a report, imminently expected, from the Law Commission. Meanwhile, we have the opportunity to ensure that our ongoing initiatives, such as the policy focus within the Ministry of Social Development, and civil union and hate crime law, are working well. We also have the chance to develop strong policy for the future. And we have the chance to catch a breath and consider how best to embed the achievements which we have made.
In the light of that, three of our Rainbow MPs – Charles Chauvel, Maryan Street and I – attended the recent SS4Q Conference in Wellington, in listening mode. Some of what we heard was hopeful – schools taking on diversity programmes, supporting queer students, putting their resources where their mouths are. And some was worrying. Our admiration for the confidence of those young people and the dedication of those who have struggled for years to open up the system to their messages is unbounded. Grabbing the opportunity of a big queer crowd in Wellington on the Saturday evening, we opened up the Labour caucus Room in Parliament for a discussion on where next for our Rainbow communities.
60 or so of us had an hour of intense discussion. There is always something inspiring about discussing the future in a group containing lots of young people, and with most people in the room coming from outside the Auckland and Wellington sets. The outcome was (naturally) that there was much more work to do, but a cautious support for closer and more structured nation-wide working. We will be working on that over the coming months.
Greetings from Parliament and the Beehive. Keep those ideas and reflections coming in!
Tim Barnett Senior Government Whip Member of Parliament, Christchurch Central Tim Barnett - 10th August 2007