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MAXIMum Impact: Stealth campaigns, dodgy research

Thu 28 Oct 2004 In: Comment

For a brief moment, I almost thought we understood each other. After over an hour of circular ideological discussion with seemingly no progress, I had brought things back to a personal level. I'd opened up and begun to talk about my nine-year relationship with another man, and the lifetime commitment we had made to one another – forsaking all others – in front of family and friends four years ago. She nodded sympathetically, with passion in her eyes, as she listened to my story. She'd spent a great deal of the last hour avoiding answering how legally recognising same-sex couples would have any tangible effect on heterosexual ones, and now here I was telling her how a law change would affect my life, and others like me, for the better. I really felt we were on the verge of a breakthrough – until I finished my story, and asked the simple question, how is it fair that this relationship should go unrecognised by the law? “Lots of things in life are unfair,” replied Nicki Taylor of the Maxim Institute. ATTACKS ON HOMOSEXUALITY “I'm fascinated by the curiosity in our work, and who we are,” Scott McMurray, Maxim's Communications Director, had said an hour earlier. Is it any wonder that gays and lesbians are curious, I venture, seeing as Maxim is one of the leading opponents of the Civil Union Bill. This seems to excite and surprise McMurray. “Are we a leading opponent?” he laughs. “And why?” he adds. Why indeed. Maxim insist that they are not interested in same-sex relationships, that their opposition to the Bill is entirely about promoting marriage – between a man and a woman, of course. This line of doublethink has been repeated again and again, but a cursory glance through any of Maxim's literature shoots the claim straight through the foot. A flick through twenty-six consecutive recent editions of “Real Issues”, Maxim's weekly e-newsletter, shows thirteen have attacked homosexuality in some way, ranging from mild opposition to the Civil Union Bill, to the downright insulting – “In a same-sex civil union, one of the males becomes the wife (and presumably a widow when his/her partner dies)”, suggests Maxim in Real Issues #116. In my first sit-down discussion with Maxim, this was an area I wanted cleared up. What was Maxim's beef with gays and lesbians? I got my opportunity not long after the publication of an earlier article I wrote, “(Dis)honesty is the best (Maxim) policy,” in which I noted the Institute's unwillingness to talk to the gay media. The following day, I received a phone call from Scott McMurray, letting me know that I was welcome to call him anytime if I had any questions. An interview was soon arranged. McMurray wanted to bring along a second Maxim staffer, I said I would prefer a one-on-one interview, as it seemed only fair if lines of communication and trust were to be built up. THE MAXIM DOUBLE ACT An hour or so before we were scheduled to meet, he telephoned back to ask if it would be alright to bring along Nicki Taylor, a communications manager for Maxim's Centre for Education - the reason given for this was because they were already on their way to another appointment. They duly arrived, and in a conversation which lasted over an hour, a curious double-team effect took hold. Whenever McMurray was incapable of answering a question quick enough, Taylor would take over. Whenever one was speaking, the other would nod sympathetically and add occasional “mmms” and knowing nods. THE CHARITABLE STATUS QUESTION I started out by asking about the controversy surrounding Maxim's charitable status – how could they credibly claim to be a tax-exempt charity when they were so heavily involved in political lobbying? “The things that have caught the media attention and which we've been most well known for would be things that are seen to be overtly political, but we do a heck of a lot more than what we just get media attention for,” says McMurray. “We don't set out to be political, we do advocacy, we make submissions on pieces of legislation that we think are important.” Is that not lobbying? “It's advocacy. It's informing people about issues from our point of view and the information and the analysis that we've done, and then it's informing people and getting people involved in the democratic process.” MUMS PUSHING DAD OUT OF THE WAY Getting people involved in the democratic process... a more frank term for this, when considering Maxim's methods for involving people, would perhaps be “stealth activism”. A minor controversy was caused back in August when and “Queer Nation” drew attention to Maxim's form submissions against the Civil Union Bill. One was designed to be signed by a “pupil” and contained the words: “Some of us have no dad in the house... we would hate even more the idea of having a second mum in the house, pushing dad out of the way...” Excuse me? Did Maxim somehow think that the Civil Union Bill would turn people gay? No, answered both McMurray and Taylor. “No, it's not going to result in the choosing of people's sexual preference,” says McMurray. Yet fear of the impending lesbianisation of New Zealand is a recurring theme in Maxim literature. One of the main summary points of its Civil Union Bill submission was an assertion that “Homosexuality is not innate”. A video entitled “Why Marriage?”, distributed through churches in the run-up to the parliamentary submission deadline, compared the fight against civil unions to the fight against the Nazis in World War II, and featured a husband and wife (actors) discussing the implications of the bill. The wife brings up the possibility that if the bill is passed, and she runs off with another woman, then the kids will think they don't need dad anymore. “The thing about this bill is, when you change the law, it changes us,” she says solemnly over sinister piano music. “It will affect our kids.” It's difficult to get to the bottom of this reasoning, because Maxim refuse to discuss the content of either the form letters or the video. The letters, raised in my first sit-down interview, seem to be a particular sore point for Taylor, who thinks we're creating a lot of fuss over a few sentences. “Everyone's got them!” she protested. “You need to look at the wider context of how those letters came to be, the context that we sent them out, the feedback that we'd been given that day prior to those letters, so if you want to look at the message, that's a really narrow way to get our message from...we had continual requests for example submissions.” INFLUENCING THE UNINFORMED AND THE ILLITERATE And one of those requests involved how to write a letter to MPs worrying about your mum turning lesbian if the law changes, I asked? They'd already acknowledged that this wouldn't happen. “Well, again, people asked us for examples of, feeding back to us, about what the kind of things they wanted to say was, so we just put out, like this is an example submission with very very clear instructions that you don't copy this, you take this, you look at the format of it, you consider your own opinion. Very clear,” says Taylor. But if they didn't believe the bill would turn people gay, then why even include such a scenario in a template letter? “To show people how simple it can be and to encourage people to use real-life experiences and examples about scenarios and situations that they may be in personally,” answers McMurray. So was the two mums scenario something that was submitted to Maxim as a potential scenario by these illiterate letter-writers, incapable of thinking for themselves? A long pause ensued... “I don't remember,” answers Taylor. NOT OUR VIDEO, NOT RESPONSIBLE! By the time it came to answering questions about the “Why Marriage?” video on camera for “Queer Nation” a few weeks later, Maxim had absolved themselves of responsibility altogether. McMurray told me the video was made by a concerned, independent couple who merely asked Maxim how they could help out. He said, laughing, that Maxim were not responsible for the content of the video whatsoever. “But we did distribute it,” he acknowledged. That much is certain – the copy of the video in my possession was sent out with a Maxim letterhead, signed by communications assistant Amanda McGrail, along with copies of Maxim anti-civil union literature. The whole package was, simply (and quite literally, considering the emotive WWII imagery used in the video) a political call to arms. MAXIM'S WEAKNESSES APPEAR AT CU HEARINGS It seems the campaign worked. Around half of the 6000-odd submissions received by the select committee were form letters, according to committee chair Tim Barnett, and the vast majority of the submissions were against the bill being passed. The origin of the letters was so transparent that MP Lianne Dalziel even commented on it when she finally met Maxim at the select committee hearing. She said it was good to finally hear from them directly, as she'd been hearing from them indirectly for weeks. The presentation, made by managing director Greg Fleming and Nicki Taylor - billed as a “communications manager with the Institute” who “formerly practiced law at Russell McVeigh” – stayed away from anti-gay rhetoric, despite the fact the tabled written submission included summary headings like “The homosexual lifestyle is characterised by severe health risks” and “The Bills will normalise inherently dangerous sexual practices, leading to increased strain on the health system”. Taylor proceeded to present Maxim's “legal analysis”, which involved tabling discussions with sixteen “hospitals” (largely communications people from various District Health Boards) which seeked to prove that discrimination against same-sex couples did not exist in medical situations. “Hospitals do not discriminate against a same-sex or defacto partner”, she said. Maxim reproduced summaries of their discussions with the sixteen hospitals on their website, along with the names of the people spoken to. It all seemed pretty clear-cut, but like most Maxim “research”, you don't have to dig too deep to uncover serious doubts. Two of the named contacts called had no idea their comments were going to be published until I phoned them to check their veracity, and one was particularly irritated as the conversation had been “off the record”. MPs on the select committee did not take Maxim's assertion about hospitals at face value, and asked questions about the grey areas. What if a partner is incapacitated, and can't make their wishes about visitors clear? What about long-term care, who gets to make the decisions? Hospitals have to wade through these minefields on a daily basis, and when it's a hostile family vs. a same-sex partner, an all-too-common scenario, your life is suddenly at whims of mediators, staff discretion, and in extreme cases, legal action. I asked Scott McMurray afterwards about all of the above, and even he admitted that you would have to have a security guard standing at every single hospital monitoring every case to ensure discrimination wasn't actually happening. Maxim asserted, with all hospitals, that there were no known cases of a same-sex partner being denied visitation rights. Yet, with one of the Maxim hospital sources I spoke to, it was acknowledged that this assertion could not be made as only CEO's of hospitals could confirm that, and they rarely gave interviews. Makes sense really – what public hospital post-the Human Rights Act 1993 would acknowledge that discrimination may have occurred? Taylor and Fleming seemed to have immense difficulty answering questions from MPs about their research. Legal expert Taylor couldn't answer a question about long-term care by Mark Gosche, saying she didn't know where the relevant law was located. United Future MP Murray Smith wanted information on how promiscuous gays with children were, to which Fleming responded “Ah, off the top of my head I couldn't quote that material, but I'm sure studies have been done, yeah.” Taylor made mention of the low uptake of a recriprocal benefits bill that had been drawn up in Hawaii for same-sex and defacto couples. This was little more than a registration system which gave couples extremely limited rights. ACT MP Stephen Franks asked her for figures – she had none. At one point, Lianne Dalziel put it to Greg Fleming that he had produced no evidence that a child of a loving, same-sex couple were any worse off, and he threw up his hands in camp frustration, exclaiming, “Oh please!” DODGY RESEARCHERS Oddly enough, Maxim stayed away from drawing attention to two of the more laughable sources quoted in their written submission. Dr Neil Whitehead had already perjured himself before the select committee a few weeks previously by misrepresenting various studies with gay content and proclaiming that civil unions would be “child abuse”. One of the misquoted researchers, Associate Professor Michael Dunne of the Queensland University of Technology, was so concerned about Whitehead's inaccuracies that he wrote to the select committee personally to complain. “Even though he [Whitehead] claims to have researched the area for 13 years, he's published nothing scientific on the issue of sexuality,” Dunne told me. “It would take anyone, including a journalist who wants to look closely, within 10 minutes you can see that Dr Whitehead's only publication in this area are self-published pamphlets.” A dubious form of discourse indeed, aiding comparisons between Whitehead and discredited antigay American sociologist Paul Cameron, struck off nearly every reputable peer association in his homeland over 20 years ago, whom Maxim had previously used as a direct source in their Care of Children Bill submission. How can we trust Maxim as a credible source of information when people like Whitehead are being used, I asked McMurray. Would he say Whitehead was a credible source? The response, as before, was to deny responsibility. It was not up to Maxim to defend Whitehead, and besides, he was only one of over 200 sources quoted in their submission. “We're not purporting to have to defend him, we're suggesting there's a body of evidence out there that draws a number of conclusions from research.” But your argument is only as good as the research you're using to back it up, surely? “Well, you can make arguments without needing research behind it, certainly,” was the response. THE INVENTED AUTHOR AND QUOTES An interesting admission in light of the fact that Maxim appear to have actually invented – not misquoted – one of their other often-used sources. Paul Litterick of the NZ Rationalists   

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Thursday, 28th October 2004 - 12:00pm

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