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Marriage Equality: Follow the Leader

Wed 14 Nov 2012 In: Comment View at Wayback View at NDHA

New Christian Right Tactic - "Marriage Equality will cause Zombie Apocalypse!!!" According to its website, Family First is targeting several National MPs in the hope that they won't follow John Key's liberal lead in supporting marriage equality within their parliamentary caucus. But how realistic is this perception? The named MPs are Gerry Brownlee, David Carter, Judith Collins, Paul Hutchinson, Murray McCully, Lockwood Smith, Maurice Williamson, Chris Auchinvole, Paula Bennett, Jackie Blue, Jonathan Coleman, Jacqui Dean, Craig Foss, Jo Goodhew, Nicky Wagner, Kate Wilkinson, Amy Adams, Cam Calder, Stephen Joyce, Nikki Kaye, Hekia Parata, Maggie Barry, Paul Goldsmith, Ian McKelvie, Jami-Lee Ross and Scott Simpson. Apart from Brownleee, Carter and Collins, very few of the above strike me as usual habitual social conservatives. Hutchinson is usually excellent value when it comes to the pro-choice side of the abortion debate and seems to be espousing the same evidence-based approach to pediatrics and developmental psychology in the context of same-sex parenting within the Marriage Equality Act. Williamson, McCully, Wilkinson, Joyce, Bennett and Parata are usually solid centre-right social liberals on most other issues, so one suspects that lobbying them would be a dead end for religious social conservatives. Nikki Kaye is an outstanding centre-right social liberal when it comes to LGBT rights concerns within her caucus. We can also subtract those National MPs that represent metropolitan electorates, which have ease of LGBT lobbying access insofar as predominantly metropolitan seats are concerned. That leaves Auchinvole, Foss, Tremain, McKelvie and Simpson as rural or provincial city MPs who might be at risk from greater religious social conservative demographic density in rural electorates. However, how many of these might vote against marriage equality during the second reading, even if Family First does lobby against it? To answer this, one needs to ask questions about the centrality of effective parliamentary leadership and good media presentation within current New Zealand politics. Like Clark and Labour before him, Key is the current governing party's greatest asset. He sets the agenda and is a skilful communicator, and chooses what issues he backs. He supports marriage equality because he perceives that there is overwhelming majority support for it, and religious social conservatives aren't seen a core constituency for the New Zealand centre-right. Thus, if Key supports marriage equality, many undecided National MPs will follow the leader on the issue. They will do so because Key is precisely the greatest asset to their party and their marginal electorate and party list survival depends on his continued popularity, particularly during a second term when the Labour/Green Opposition is now in a dead heat with the governing centre right. Evidently, Key (or his advisors) may have calculated that there is a 'parachute effect' to centre-right social liberalism in this context, which may impede National's poll deterioration if it is seen to support pragmatic progressive political change that has no negative economic spinoff. It may mean greater National Party appeal to traditionally elusive demographic segments such as younger voters, LGBT voters and urban liberals. One wonders if in-depth polling breakdowns would back this tentative theory of mine. Be that as it may, what about the National Party and religious social conservatives? Are the latter seen as a core social constituency for National? Given Key's support for marriage equality, it would seem not. As to why this might be the case, Christian religious observance is dropping overall within New Zealand, and social secularisation has increased. Added to which, there is an enduring recession, and it has evidently affected Family First's small business donor base, as well as its available tactical "warchest"- which may explain the lack of billboard placards, anti-equality brochures or even bumper stickers from Family First, most of whose campaign has been conducted online. However, there's another reason- "Value Your Vote." Is it the case that the National Party hierarchy was considerably angered by the "treachery" of Family First when it came to last year's "Value Your Vote' leadership evaluations over questions of religious social conservative ideological purity? It will be recalled that Winston Peters came out well "ahead" of Prime Minister Key in that "contest", which may have prompted some religious social conservative hardliners to vote for New Zealand First on the basis of what it might have perceived as a stronger religious social conservative voting bloc. Unfortunately for them, this would have collided with National's wish to minimise parliamentary opposition to its centre-right economic reform programme. If National is estranged from the Christian Right over Family First's opportunism, too, then it would also parallel similar developments within the international centre-right. Stephen Harper's Conservatives are often damned by the far right anti-abortion and anti-gay Canadian "Lifesite" website, while the UK Christian Right equally seems to despise David Cameron and other Tory modernisers for their centre-right social liberalism over marriage equality. Moreover, the New Zealand Christian Right has an amusing habit of throwing its vote away on fringe unelectable religious social conservative parties, from Christian Heritage to the Christian Democrats/Future New Zealand/Kiwi Party to United Future to the Destiny and Family parties to Colin Craig and his Conservative Party today. Ideological purity is one thing, but it's no good if there is little engagement with the practicality of mobilising one's social constituency as adherents of a more mainstream, electable centre-right party. And there usually isn't. Fundamentalist voters aren't an attractive constituency for the New Zealand centre-right because they alienate moderate mainstream voters and tend to either cost them elections or send them into toxic coalitions with unsuitable partners- 1987, 1996 and 2005 come to mind. If National decides not to back the undoubted asset that is its current parliamentary leader on marriage equality, then any potential 'parachute effect' that support for marriage equality might have on National Party poll support will evaporate and Key's leadership may be slightly destabilised in terms of adverse public perceptions of caucus control. That will not be conducive to survival of National MPs within marginal electorates or lower placed National Party List MPs. Again, then, we need to out mobilise the Christian Right when it comes to lobbying these National MPs and seek the assistance of centre-right allies to guide our approaches to shore up parliamentary support for marriage equality as the time for the Marriage Equality Bill's second reading draws closer. Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 14th November 2012    

Credit: Politics and religion commentator Craig Young

First published: Wednesday, 14th November 2012 - 1:18pm

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