|The emerging Commission for the Families could be a political minefield for GLBT folk, but openly gay MP Tim Barnett finds reassurance in the politics which have ushered it into existence. Back in August 2002, in the (brief) negotiation on Government formation following the General Election, Labour were faced with limited options.
There had been too many spats with the Greens during the campaign for either side to want a coalition-type arrangement, and the mere thought of an agreement with New Zealand First appalled virtually all Labour MPs, for a wide variety of reasons. Minority Government with no guarantees from other parties on supporting key confidence votes, and the annual budget, would be immensely destabilising. The outcome was a unique arrangement of three different levels of relationship with three different political parties - coalition with the Progressives, a "supply and confidence" arrangement with United Future and a cooperative relationship with the Greens. Understandably, it was the relationship with United Future (UF) which caused the greatest concern to queer communities. That was in part because UF was a bit of an unknown quantity, and partly because at least some of their MPs seemed to have had close relationships with such worrying organisations as Christian Heritage and with the wider moral right movement. Since the strand which unites many of those weird and wonderful organisations is homophobia, the concern was valid. The agreement between Labour and UF heightened concerns among some, since one item was support for the establishment of a Families Commission. We are now nine months on from that agreement. To date, it has worked as it was meant to. There is robust debate between Labour and UF on a whole range of issues, and they regularly vote against us. There is also a genuinely good relationship between many Labour and UF backbench members. To date, anecdotes aside, I could not claim that I was victim of discrimination from any of them. In a sense, my Prostitution Reform Bill has been like a red rag to a bull to them; however, we can all agree to disagree on that one, since it is a conscience issue, and they have kept debate to the issue rather than the person. (On the topic of the past nine months, I have to say that the overall mood of Parliament has become more homophobic. The loud and nasty attitudes come from New Zealand First MPs and some of the newer, more shrill, National MPs. The Parliamentary right in its current mood is not a safe place for an openly queer MP). The Families Commission debate has already produced some very interesting outcomes. But first, the facts. To date, the proposal has been formulated (I was part of Labour's team negotiating on that with UF), a bill has been drafted and it has been introduced to Parliament. It will go to the Social Services Select Committee (chaired by Georgina Beyer), and after public consultation will be finalised and agreed. Meanwhile, the 2003/4 budget will agree four years funding (rising over time to about $9 million a year). The Commissioners should be appointed by the end of 2003 and the whole body operating by mid 2004. Its role will be to produce research, best practice guidance and advice on how best Government and wider society can best support families. It will not define the family. The one Parliamentary debate on the proposal at time of writing has seen United Future defending the diversity of families and both National and New Zealand First attacking them for "selling out" on the family by not adopting a "mum, dad and two kids" definition as part of the proposal. Judy Turner, UF's spokesperson on these issues, called this "anti-gay…bigotry and hypocrisy" and clarified the UF position as being that "people live in families of all shapes, sizes and configurations". One can read much into this! My view is that the Parliamentary right are so backed into a corner by a Labour-UF combination that homophobia is the only outlet they can find. The arguments which they are happy to use against the Commission infer that they will be actively hostile to our communities if ever returned to Government. That is a very sad position for parties in power only until 4 years ago to have reached. I believe that the exposure of UF to Labour's Rainbow Caucus and to the reality of Government with a human rights base has moderated their attitudes. In addition, their leader Peter Dunne also has a good record of promoting human rights. UF are also political realists, and if they (as most do) believe Labour will be the core of government after the next election, they have to come to terms with the reality of diversity. So I don't think we need to be threatened by the concept of a Families Commission. I encourage submissions to the Select Committee (www.clerk.parliament.govt.nz). We also need to ensure the appointment of Commissioners who understand the diversity of families, and continued engagement on the issues which matter to queer parents. We can win from this proposal. Tim Barnett, MP - 6th June 2003