Homosexual Law Reform petition - report of the Petitions Committee

8 November 1968, New Zealand Parliament

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Mr GRIEVE (Awarua)—I am directed by the Petitions Committee to present the report of the committee on the petition of the New Zealand Homosexual Law Reform Society praying for an amendment to the Crimes Act 1961. The Committee has no recommendation to make. I move, That the report do lie upon the table. The committee heard evidence from representatives of the society who have given the subject of homosexuality several years of close study, and it is indebted also to others who volunteered information and gave reports on the subject. Especially I draw attention to the information given by Dr McLachlan, of Wellington, and Dr Mackay, Superintendent of Porirua Hospital. The committee is well aware of the emotional nature of this subject, and, after full consideration of all the information available, presents this report to the House. We took into consideration reports from other countries, and we also noted that in the Police Gazette of 1966 there were recorded 117 convictions for homosexual offences in New Zealand, 42 involving offences on boys and 75 involving indecency between males. Of those 75, only six were convicted of sodomy. Speaking as a member of the committee, with the benefit of all the information I heard at the committee and of what I have read prior to and since then both for and against the legalising of the homosexual act by consenting males in private, and also speaking personally, I believe the practice of homosexuality is revolting. We all stand for certain moral principles, and the legalising of homosexuality would indicate to society that we do not really condemn homosexual behaviour. If this were made legal the public could feel that it was not very immoral. Personally, I was amazed and disappointed at some of the Church leaders throughout New Zealand who advocated a change in the law to permit homosexual acts to be practised. The very Bible that they preach from condemns immoral living, and I cannot see any justification for legalising homosexual acts and stating that they are not immoral. An expert witness in favour of legalising homosexuality told the committee that he knew many men who lived in fear of the law as it stands in case they should be unable to resist temptation and so risk imprisonment. Surely this shows that the law as it stands is a deterrent to this illegal, revolting, and unnatural behaviour.

Hon. A. H. NORDMEYER (Island Bay)—As the member who presented the petition I should like to say a few words. First let me thank the committee for the very great care it gave to the subject, for the very attentive hearing it gave to the witnesses, and for the very careful way in which it has considered the question. The president of the Homosexual Law Reform Society lives in my electorate, and it fell therefore to my lot to present the petition. It was not possible for me to hear all the evidence because it was necessary that I should be present at other committees. I did, however, hear some of the evidence. The general plea of the petitioners was that two sections of the Crimes Act dealing with this matter should be repealed. It is my personal view that the petitioners would have been wiser had they asked for more inquiry into this matter by an independent commission. I know the committee gave the petition all the attention it possibly could, and considered all the evidence that was available to it. However, this is a very complex question, not to be decided on emotional issues alone. It is a question which in my view deserves an inquiry, possibly by a Royal Commission. Members will be aware that the United Kingdom Government established a very representative commission to go into this question, and after hearing evidence from all quarters and considering all the implications that commission recommended that homosexual offences should no longer be regarded as crimes. In coming to such a conclusion the commission did not express any view as to the morality of the actions. It would, I believe, have been the attitude of most, if not all, of the members of the commission that morally these actions were to be condemned, but the question they faced was whether they should be crimes. That is the issue that sooner or later must be faced in this country, because as a result of the Wolfenden commission's report in Britain the House of Commons decided—and the House of Lords concurred and it is now law—that these actions should no longer be crimes within the meaning of the law. The chairman of the Petitions Committee has emphasised that many Church people, and prominent Church people, support the petitioners, and he deplored that fact. I think, in fairness to the Churches concerned and to the individuals in the Churches who expressed their views, it should be made clear that they regard the acts in question as sinful for which the individuals concerned must be answerable. Their point is that making these acts a crime might increase rather than diminish this offensive habit. That is the issue the House at some time must take up. My view is that before the House makes a decision to alter the law—and that can come about only as a result either of Government action or of a private member's Bill—all the facts must be most carefully investigated. I appreciate the care which the Petitions Committee has given to the matter, but I suggest that that is not enough. We need something more than that. Personally I would not, on the evidence available to me at the present time, support the amendment in the law as suggested. I do not say, however, that that would be my attitude if this matter were more carefully investigated than it was possible for the Petitions Committee to investigate it.

Mr TALBOT (Ashburton)—In speaking briefly as a member of the Petitions Committee I support wholeheartedly the finding of the committee. This is a matter on which I had no difficulty in reaching a personal decision after hearing the very full and very lengthy evidence and wide-ranging submissions which were put before us. First, I made my decision on the very strong moral issues that underlie the whole of this problem. It is a problem that concerns tens of thousands of people in New Zealand today. I believe there is very wide support for a firm stand to be taken against any lowering of moral standards and codes by condoning in any way these unnatural acts—and I repeat, these unnatural acts. I must add that I find it very hard to understand the attitude of many Church leaders and Church organisations in their desire to change the present law. I am also not convinced that the vast majority of churchgoing people and church-going Christians are in favour of a change in the law. The proposals of the petitioners would, I believe, be a very serious step towards lowering the spiritual and moral fibre of our nation. This is of concern to all responsible New Zealand citizens. I believe that the majority of New Zealanders are in favour of adequate deterrents to prevent any further spread of these unnatural actions. A change in the law as proposed by the petitioners, the New Zealand Homosexual Law Reform Society, would remove a very necessary deterrent to the protection of many of our younger people and our weak-willed people who could be influenced still further if this unnatural activity is legalised. Whether imprisonment is the right deterrent is debatable, but I am emphatic that a strong deterrent of some kind must continue on our statute book to deal with the issue mentioned in the prayer of the petition. The petitioners have stated that homosexuals live in fear of being caught because of the present law, and I am very pleased that the chairman of the committee has mentioned this point. It is no doubt correct, but I believe this fear is necessary if this unnatural activity is to be controlled in our society. We must remember that fear is something that all people who do not conform with the law and moral codes must live with. I am pleased that this petition has been brought before Parliament because it has given us the opportunity to state quite clearly where we stand. I believe the committee has acted responsibly in this matter in protecting New Zealand citizens and upholding moral standards.

Dr FINLAY (Waitakere)—I am rather disappointed, but hardly surprised, at the finding of the committee. In a very few words I should like to explain both of those statements on my part. First of all, as to the lack of surprise, notwithstanding a reputation for radicalism that we enjoy overseas, I believe we are essentially a conservative people as a whole and that the winds of social change at least blow more gently here than they do elsewhere, except perhaps when there are people like the Minister of Justice to fan them in family matters and agitate them rather more than they would have been if they were left alone. Generally it is our habit to follow in the footsteps of the United Kingdom, but at a very considerable distance and several years behind. I am well aware of the widespread opposition in the community to what the petitioners asked for in their prayer, and in that climate of public opinion it would be hardly credible that a report of the nature of the Wolfenden one would be promulgated here, let alone acted upon at the present time. I think I should say, however, that there seems to be little doubt that homosexuality is neither an abstract phenomenon nor a deliberately and perversely chosen way of life. It is a symptom of a sickness less of the body than of the mind. Whether in any given case it is remediable is perhaps debatable, but there is little room for debate that we in this country have insufficient psychiatric talent and experience to diagnose, let alone treat, all the cases that require it. One thing I believe to be beyond all argument is that the cure does not lie in a prison sentence. Rather, is that a source of aggravation and a focus of contamination. As to my disappointment in the committee's recommendation, this lies in the way it gave a negative finding. Like the member for Island Bay, I believe that the committee could have done better by recommending some kind of inquiry, and indeed that the petitioners themselves would have done better had they asked for that rather than for the immediate change in the law which was their precise plea. I, like the member for Island Bay, would like to see some kind of independent inquiry instituted, whether under Government aegis, through the universities, or wherever it may be, to study the problem and conduct our own kind of Wolfenden inquiry. Perhaps this would not reveal many new facts, but it could go a long way towards resolving some of the differences that have manifested themselves before the committee as to the extent of the problem in New Zealand. Here I would like to say that some of the generalisations that were put before the committee were, in my judgment, not only unfortunate, but completely unscientifié; and for people to read into these generalisations some assumptions as to the quantum of people concerned in any given body of people is quite wrong. If we had such an inquiry it would enable the public to contemplate the problem calmly and dispassionately and free from the very deep emotion that now attaches to it. May I conclude with the expression of what may be a sobering thought...I think it is generally accepted, at least in medical and scientific circles if not publicly, that every one of us has some latent element of homosexuality in him, even those who are loudest and most vehement in their protestations of revulsion and abhorrence at this kind of conduct or this kind of tendency. The very strength and volume of such protestations may be less an expression of innermost thoughts and emotions than some evidence of their suppression. The Homosexual Law Reform Society and the distinguished people whose names appear on their letter paper are to be thanked and congratulated for inviting Parliament to give consideration to a problem. I think their actual request was at least premature, but the need for inquiry is present and, I believe, pressing: and I hope that inquiry will be pressed in the appropriate quarter independently and without being clouded over by emotion and prejudgment.

Hon. J. RAE (Minister of Housing)– The member for Waitakere has said that he was rather disappointed but not surprised by the committee's recommendation. I think the majority of New Zealanders would not be surprised, and they would not be disappointed, but I am sure that those people who added their names to this petition will be very much disappointed; and I could probably add a considerable number to it. One cannot but be impressed with the status of the people who were prepared to put their names on the petition. They start from the highest office in the Churches and go through the professional groups, the lawyers, professors, school masters, scientists, and others. They were all people of some standing, and they brought a great mass of evidence in the form of written submissions and were prepared to answer all questions. I agree with the member for Waitakere and the member for Island Bay that the petitioners would have been wiser had they asked for further inquiry, and I think they should have been prepared to wait until the effect of the English legislation was known. The member for Waitakere said there has been a great deal of generalisation on this subject. I think that was in the mind of every member of the committee. Test areas of, say, 1,000 persons have been surveyed, but in my view the results obtained have not been as scientific as they might have been. The results were averaged over the total male population, and on that basis, and on the basis of what had been done in other countries, it was said that there were 40,000 to 50,000 homosexuals in New Zealand. A good deal of that sort of evidence was given to the committee, and anyone who would call it fully documented would not, I think, find the committee prepared to agree with him. There was evidence both for and against the petition, but the majority of those who gave evidence felt that the law should be changed. A number of medical and legal witnesses said they doubted whether that would serve any useful purpose, but I think the lawyer's opinion was that here was , a penalty against males and no penalty against females, who apparently indulge in acts of a somewhat similar nature. No one claimed that the practice would become any less frequent, but I think most claimed that it would not become any more frequent. That is the sort of fact that would have to be discovered, and that is why I think there should be further inquiry. After all, the Wolfenden report is a good many years old, and Britain got round to changing the law only last year. We do tend to follow Britain some years later, as the member for Waitakere said, although sometimes we are a bit ahead of Britain; but I am sure every member of the committee felt that there had to be a period of delay before we could really make up our minds on this sort of thing. We were told that there are some homosexuals who practise, and others who do not practise. No proportion was given to us, but if there are homosexuals who do not practice then I think it is pretty obvious that the law as it stands is a deterrent in this respect, just as it deters many from doing other criminal acts. We know there is a law to punish us if we do offend. It is said that these homosexuals are very unhappy people. I suppose that means they are worried, but all of us have lots of worries and have to face up to them. One of the facts that came out in evidence was that, both medically and otherwise, we were all seeking information as to whether treatment would be sought, and, if it were, whether it would result in cures. We had some evidence that in Britain, since the law was changed, more were seeking treatment— the maximum number given was 300– but there was evidence that fewer were seeking treatment. We had no way of discovering what the position was, but there seemed to be general agreement that treatment was not much good anyhow. I want the House to know that, while this petition sought to legalise homosexual acts between adult consenting males in private, it did not seek to absolve those under 21; they could still be brought before the court and punished. It was said that the purpose was to protect the young and try to cure them of their ways, but I think the law should also try to protect those not so young. However, we were concerned lest the change proposed should have any effect on youth, and of course, if an adult male homosexual has association with a person under 21, he would be punishable; that would remain the law. However, the important point is that better information should be obtained, and perhaps in the near future it can be obtained. It is possible that in days to come the law will be changed, but I am not prepared to support a change at this stage. This is a revolting act in the minds of what we term normal people, and the fact that so many intellectual people have given this matter so much thought, and have been prepared to come out publicly with their names and to associate themselves with this petition, means that we should give the matter more than the normal attention. However, on the evidence before us, I feel that the petition was premature, and that the public would share this view. I believe the Wolfenden report could be a subject for study, and I think that if any change in our law is contemplated we could well wait for a period before we followed the British Act of such recent origin.

Motion agreed to.