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Marriage Equality: Referendum Blues?

Fri 5 Apr 2013 In: Comment View at Wayback View at NDHA

With the Marriage Equality Bill now headed for its third reading and almost certain victory, what can its opponents do next? And will their referendum ploy succeed? It isn't just optimism that leads me to suggest not, but certain inferences that can be made from the tactics of the opposition to marriage equality to date, and their outcomes. Firstly, there is the matter of the petition against marriage equality launched by Family First, which has only managed 70,000 or so signatures in all (although they haven't been checked for authenticity as yet, apparently). According to hearsay, some conservative Catholics are refusing to sign it- not because they support marriage equality (which they don't), but because they dislike the idea of binding citizens referenda even more. As for the principal reason why that should be the case, it can be summarised in three words- euthanasia law reform. Or, more specifically, the End of Life Choices Bill, Maryan Street's private members bill. Given that at least five binding and facultive referenda in the United States and Switzerland have led to either the introduction of voluntary euthanasia or physician assisted suicide, or maintenance of access to it, understandably they have cooled on the idea of a political tactic that will possibly boomerang against their own religious and political beliefs as it has done so overseas. For the same reason, Family First's new "Marriage Pledge" may struggle to find supporters amongst conservative Catholics. The tactic in question asks antigay religious social conservatives to sign a voluntary pledge to vote only for parties and individual MPs that opposed marriage equality, which would effectively restrict religious social conservatives to two parties if they follow through- the Conservatives, and New Zealand First. In the latter case, conservative Catholics may well recall that all but one New Zealand First MP voted for the second incarnation of the Death With Dignity Bill in 2003, under the aegis of Peter Brown. And, if the End of Life Choices Bill gets pulled out of the ballot box during the remainder of the parliamentary term, and Maryan Street agrees to the idea of a referendum on the question of euthanasia law reform in that context, those existing faultlines, anxieties, frustrations and hesitations may widen into an irrevocable wedge between conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants over the question of such referenda. If the referendum tactic does fail, that may also make Bob McCoskrie's Family First untenable. It would be a humiliating climbdown to have to acknowledge that his referendum petition failed to secure enough signatures and therefore lapsed, as did a similar petition organised against prostitution law reform back in 2004. Are there any steps that could be taken to impede the progress of this referendum? I decided to take a look at the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993 and offer some suggestions. Unfortunately, Section 4 is little help, given that it does not omit questions of human rights and civil liberties from negative referenda, which may require future amendment efforts. Under Section 7(2)(b), there is some limited provision for objecting to the gazetted wording of particular referenda questions, but these must occur no more than 28 days after the wording of the proposed referendum question is made official. Under Section 19 (4), a referendum petition is judged to lapse or fail if it fails to secure the signatures of ten percent of the total electorate. Unfortunately, Section 20 (2) provides opportunities for proponents of specific petitions to resubmit them if they've otherwise lapsed. Section 41 (1-4) prohibits advertising for or against specific referendum questions on the day of voting. Under Section 43, promoters must provide documented details of proposed advertisements. Under Section 45, referendum returns are available for public scrutiny under the Official Information Act and Ombudsmans Act. Under Section 48, more than fifty voters can call for an inquiry into the conduct of any specific referendum. Moreover, Sections 51F and 51G enable the courts to void the results of any specific referenda if there are irregularities or illegalities involved in the procedure. Finally, Section 57 enables one to scrutinise relevant documentation through the Official Information Act and Ombudsmans Act and obliges the Clerk of the House of Representatives to comply with such requests. If we chose to do so, the above options for intervention might make the process of gathering signatures for such a referendum petition, or holding such a referendum, expensive and highly difficult for Family First and its backers. Another tactic might be amendments to the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993, such as increased requirements for documentation, enhanced donor transparency and disclosure standards, conflict of interest statements, the aforementioned ban against referenda that attack human rights and civil liberties, and the repeal of Section 20 (2) and strict enforcement of the signatory time period for CIR petitions. Of course, the other option is a nuclear one- repeal of the CIR Act 1993. The National Party might want to consider this in the context of the current asset sales petition and referendum, and it is possible that such a process might enable pressure on Labour and the Greens to amend the CIR Act to some extent. Unfortunately, this may well only be feasible in the context of the exit of New Zealand First from Parliament- which may need to be an LGBT political priority for the next New Zealand election in 2014. Recommended: CIR Act 1993: Craig Young - 5th April 2013    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Friday, 5th April 2013 - 10:52am

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