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Democracy at work: Two days at the marriage equality hearings

Thu 28 Feb 2013 In: Features View at Wayback View at NDHA

It's said that the real business of Parliament is done in its Select Committees, such as the one which yesterday reported back recommending marriage equality for glbti people. It's during Parliament's select committee process that the public, from the expert right down to the certifiably daft, can have their say on proposed legislation, or changes to legislation. It's the committees' function to solicit as wide a variety of relevant views as possible, to distill down the essence of sometimes wildly conflicting views, to decide how much weight to give varying arguments and to report back to their fellow MPs ready for a parliamentary vote. Select committees can make provision for verbal as well as written submissions and if the two days of Auckland verbal submissions on Louisa Wall's Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill is anything to go by the poor buggers earn their salary and more. For select committees a number of MPs, generally chosen in a reasonable attempt to reflect the political make-up of the current Parliament, are chosen, sometimes with deputies lined up if the process is predicted to be particularly onerous. For the two days of the Auckland hearings the representation was National 2, Labour 2 and Greens 1. Although the chair for much of the process was Labour's Ruth Dyson, National's Chris Auchinvole had chaired some of the hearings in her unavoidable absence. The verbal hearings were a process that required patience, tact, diplomacy and a thick skin. Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi MP Working from left to right across the committee as it sat in Auckland we start with one of National's problem MPs, Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi. Being a tad tainted by vote rigging charges amongst a number of his Sikh constituents put him on the back foot in the credibility stakes. His subsequent blatant lie to a Tongan church rally against marriage equality, when he stated that most of his fellow MPs had voted against the first reading of the bill when in fact the majority voted for it, was just plain disturbing. But there he was, generally calm and expressionless, occasionally showing more enthusiasm for the subject when an anti- submission was being voiced, sitting in judgement on our rights as glbti citizens. It was hard to resist the speculation that Bakshi was appointed by the government on a "let's see if he sinks or swims" basis. It's just as hard to resist the impression that his apparently not very open and enquiring mind was firmly made up against this kind of legislation before he was even appointed to the committee and that nothing would change it. By nature and perhaps by culture he seemed on a different plane to his fellow committee MPs. Chris Auchinvole MP Next to the right was National's Chris Auchinvole. The description "a gentleman" seems archaic these days and yet that is what Auchinvole clearly is. Courteous, tactful, considerate, genuinely charming and with a palpable sense of humanity. He has a strongly religious background and a resume which includes high office in the Presbyterian Church. Auchinvole empathised with those, from either side of the debate, who found the going tough. He questioned delicately yet pointedly. One of his favourite questions to submitters who claimed that warped and disfuctional children were inevitably the result of non- 'one father, one mother' and solo-parent families, was in reality, rhetorical. "I was brought up in post-World War II austerity Scotland by a mother who struggled alone, as our father was completely out of the picture, to provide for and bring up a number of children," he would state. "And yet my brothers and sisters and I seem to have grown into responsible and good citizens and have achieved a measure of success in our chosen fields. Would you care to comment on that?" It was a killer question with no reasoned response possible, even from the narrow-minded and dogmatic. Ruth Dyson MP Moving around the semi-circle, Chair Ruth Dyson, a long-time Labour MP and holder of several crucial ministerial portfolios over the years, was the essence of a good chair and a decent human being. Striking just the right note, somewhere between authoritarian and motherly, she kept the process on track with insight, humour, a strong personality and the occasional withering word or expression. Dyson's appreciation of the toll making submissions took on some of the more emotional or less worldly, regardless of their stance, was remarkable. And her commitment to ensuring that the democratic process was nurtured and respected was impressive. Her sly asides regarding the source of the water in the flasks at each table, frequently sipped at her suggestion as a calming balm in moments of high emotion, all too often reminded Aucklanders that the source of some of our drinking water is Waikato cow shit. Moana Mackey MP Labour MP Moana Mackey was perhaps the most intellectually impressive of the Auckland lineup. This young, straight woman had done her homework and had facts and clarifications at her fingertips. To the inevitable type of Google-based anti-bill assertion that "research proves," for example, "that same sex couples are no good as parents," she would ask for the source of the research then immediately round on it along the lines of: "Were you aware that a subsequent peer review of that particular study showed it to be so seriously flawed that the university in question disowned it and eventually dismissed the researcher?" Inevitably the discomfited submitter was demonstrably not aware. Kevin Hague MP And finally to the right, gay Green MP Kevin Hague, a generally quiet but intensely observant presence and the master of the droll, killer observation. A classic was occasionally directed at religious organisations urging the government to disallow legal same-sex marriage as it would somehow impinge on their religious freedom. "A number of churches and religious leaders are supporting marriage equality, they want to perform legalised marriage ceremonies for gay couples," Hague would observe. "And yet you want the government to tell them they may not do so. Can you clarify for me why the law should support religious freedom for you but deny it to others?" Ka-boom! Behind other desks sat the staff backing up the committee. Advisors and counselors, clerks and administrators, all clearly humane and capable people, as committed to the democratic process as the chair and ensuring that the machinery underpinning democracy whirred away faultlessly. And, finally, the press bench. Sometimes cluttered with TV and newspaper reporters when anyone mouthy and headline-grabbing like ostentatiously anti-gay Family First and Protect Marriage frontman Bob McCoskrie was scheduled to speak. But most often a little empty with just a glbti documentary camera crew and Daily News in full-time attendance and the NZ Herald's dutiful reporter in action for much, but not all, of the time. In front of these players a rapidly changing cast of submitters came forward to air their views. They were by turns passionate, informed, ignorant, heartwarming and just plain nasty. Over two long days, every five or so minutes, almost without break for up to ten hours at a run with only a brief lunch recess, yet another person or group fronted up in an ever-changing and exhausting stream of arguments for and against marriage equality for glbti people. And every one was treated decently and got a fair hearing. But more about them in a few days' time. Jay Bennie - 28th February 2013    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Thursday, 28th February 2013 - 1:19am

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