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"Out of the closet and into the House"

Sat 6 Sep 2008 In: Features View at Wayback View at NDHA

In his own words, Tim Barnett’s political journey can be summed up as: "Out of the closet and into the house." Tim Barnett Barnett stood for Parliament in 1996 "because politics has always fascinated me. I'm not the greatest orator in Parliament but I'm somebody who feels issues strongly." Being a "problem solver" in his electorate MP role also appealed, as did the possibility of "getting something moving nationally which you can look back on and say: 'that couple can now celebrate their relationship because of that law.' That seems to be nearer to a validation of life than most things." "The other reason is that I wasn't actually good at very much. I have no technical skill. My writing's OK but would never sell books. Some people go from having an established profession. I've managed organisations, I'm pretty good at that. And I'll probably go back to that again in some form." Working for the NZ AIDS Foundation in Christchurch and being a spokesperson for the that city’s Freedom parties of 1991 and '93, Barnett was out and proud right from the start of his new life in New Zealand. "John Banks," who was Minister of Police in the then National-led government, "attacked the fact that we were running the Party and I had a go at him in the media and got a bit of coverage." Barnett and another openly gay candidate hoped to garner financial and volunteer support from the glbt community for their 1996 general election campaign. "We thought we’d get a gay business group together to raise cash for the campaign. We had a great turnout of people and that became the Gays and Lesbians In Business (GLIB) network, which I thought that was great. We actually performed a service to the community, but we didn’t raise a cent." Barnett says he had the assistance of "a lot of gay volunteers in that campaign, so it was all 'openly gay' in that sense." When elected, Barnett was the first openly glbt person to have been elected as such into Parliament... three years earlier Chris Carter had come out to his electorate and the country after he was already in the House, and in the 1980s Marilyn Waring had been outed whilst a serving MP, though she neither confirmed nor denied at the time. THE NAMES GAMES So, from day one, MPs on both sides of the House knew Barnett was a card-carrying unapologetic homosexual, and the mood in the corridors of power was “nearly always entirely positive. I seriously can’t think of any incident where anyone was using homophobia against me. I can think of times when people call me 'Chris', and I get called 'Christian' occasionally. It’s subliminal – they see this person as 'gay'. I even got it at a lecture recently, someone leapt out of the front gate and said 'Hi Chris!' We don’t look particularly similar, but they’re actually seeing 'gay', and they’re thinking of Chris. Interesting stuff. Barnett remembers when Parliament began after the '96 election. "As we were lined up to go into Parliament I realised I’d been lined up against John Banks. He'd been railing against me in the media and now I was right next to him. I thought: 'I either have a go and say what I think, or I say quiet.'  I said: 'I'd just like a congratulate you on your broadcasting' – I've always thought he was quite a good entertaining broadcaster if you forget the crap – and he responded, and from then on, we always got on alright. But at the same time, I knew he was giving Chris a hard time." Rumours that Banks was giving Chris Carter 'a hard time' became well distributed in political circles. There were allegations that he habitually called Carter 'Christine' and would turn his face (or was it his bum... the story was different depending who told it) to the wall as he and Carter passed in Parliament's corridors. Carter has always publicly stayed mum on the subject. RISING ABOVE SEXUALITY Barnett has come to realise that some National MPs won't, or don't, talk to him. "They're disengaged." He tries not to make an issue of their silence. "It’s just my manner not to be judgmental and to try to get on with people." Overall, he has felt Parliament to be "a reasonably safe place," for an openly gay MP, "and I know the [Labour] caucus has been an actively good place, because sexuality is not 'the elephant in the room.' For us, Rainbow issues come up a fair amount. Helen is as positive and accepting as you'd ever want a leader to be. So it’s a very supportive and good place to be. And I think a lot of people have gone on journeys in that caucus over the years on these issues." As Labour's whip Barnett surely has to work closely with, say, NZ First's deputy leader and whip Peter Brown who has been gunning for NZ's gay Chief Censor to be sacked and recently characterised a call by the Human Rights Commission for fair treatment of transgender people as "the creeping insanity of social and sexual engineering." "He's said some pretty awful things about our community in the past," acknowledges Barnett. "But when I realized the whips from each party had a bit of a peer group and had to team up together, I again thought: 'you are either hostile, or you engage.' And I want my working relationship to finish with him saying: 'Well, I worked with Tim Barnett and he was always fine.'" "I had a conversation with [National's] Murray McCully in the Cook Islands a few weeks ago. I don't think I've spoken to him in the whole time I've been in Parliament. We’ve just never been in the same committee, or in the same situation. I'll make sure in those conversations that I'm engaging with people. So if they do look at me and think 'gay' first of all, and more than a few do, then they reckon they've been well treated. That’s me just playing things the way I want to play them." Barnett acknowledges he has benefited from the presence other ground-breaking MPs, such as Carter and Georgina Beyer. "Georgina was always out there, and I think Chris faced a lot more than me. I mean, he was out three years earlier, only eight years after Law Reform. And Marilyn Waring. I mean, who knows how to label her journey, but she now identifies and accepts that she was lesbian then." "I think our parliament as an institution is a pretty friendly place. A lot of the staff are gay, and now that its more 'feminised,' I think some of the opposition on the issues has gone." FRONTING SOCIAL CHANGE In far right circles Barnett will forever be branded as the man who got prostitution legalised. Why did he tackle that thorny issue? "When you're in Parliament you grab opportunities to do things. If you’re an entrepreneurial person and you want to make a mark, and if an issue comes up and you reckon you can see a Parliamentary solution to it – and that one was obviously in need of law reform as it was glaringly obvious that the old law wasn't working – then you go for it." Barnett says Katherine O'Regan, a powerful force behind the passing of the 1993 Human Rights Act which outlawed discrimination on various grounds, including sexuality, and who had moved into the Waipa electorate vacated by Marilyn Waring, was initially working on it. "She recruited me to help her, really. I then got left with the baby when she left Parliament." Prostitution was close to home for the Christchurch Central MP who lives just a few blocks from Christchurch's notorious Manchester Street precinct. "I could talk about my electorate. The second biggest sex industry presence in the country is in Christchurch Central. I had links with the sex worker community there and I know [NZ Prostitutes' Collective head]Catherine Healy through the AIDS Foundation, and it was already in Labour policy." Barnett acknowledges that being a gay man defected any accusations of sleazy self-interest. "I don't think a straight man could have gotten away with doing prostitution law reform. They would have been seen as too voyeuristic. A couple of times I was attacked for not leaving it to women MPs to do it. But I think my understanding of the issues around sexuality, which is pretty fundamental to understanding prostitution, made it easier to work on that issue." What does Barnett say to the people who think the sexual morality legislation that he's been involved with is wrecking the country? "I probably don't have any conversations with them, so the scenario’s unlikely, but I'd want proof. I’d bring up justice issues, and I’d reflect on the fact that five years on from prostitution law reform even the opponents of it don’t want us to go back to what we had. Three years ago National were talking about restricting civil unions to same-sex couples only, well now they're not talking about that. So there's been a paradigm shift. We, meaning gay media and gay politicians, are the ones who have to front up to these things sometimes, but the others do come around quite quickly." BEST AND WORST MOMENTS Barnett counts the prostitution law reform vote as one of his best moments in the house. "Because as a backbencher you want to get your name on a bill. It was a majority of one vote, which was the closest it had ever been, and most people who were there thought we’d lost, and – really unusually in this job – I had the power to really control the process. I was able to work out who was going to speak when, I knew what was happening. I knew one or two people were abstaining or voting for it when the public thought they’d go the other way... but you never quite know. When things are so close, anything can happen." Asked for his worst moment, the departing MP pauses to reflect. "I'm not someone who's particularly expert in standing orders. I'm fairly safe saying it now, since Parliament's nearly finished meeting, but I was chosen as whip for my conceptual skills and welfare skills and level of organisation, not because I knew the rules of the house. There was one day Helen Clark and Michael Cullen were away, so Steven Mahary was the senior minister. We were trying to change the order of business, a disastrous thing to try because immediately the Nats get angry. So the Nats started to table a document again and again, which is the ultimate stalling mechanism. We were trying to rush through things, the whole House just ground to a stand-still, and I sat there, not knowing what to do, with this argument going on that I didn’t really understand. Steve Maharey was trying to help me out, and I'm thinking 'I'm completely out of my depth here'." CIVIL UNIONS VS MARRIAGE There are still some glbt people who feel that Civil Unions was a cop out and that nothing less than full and equal access to marriage is acceptable. "We could have gone in with marriage," responds Barnett, "but it would never have gone through. So we would have gone down in a blaze of glory, and we wouldn't have got anything. We’d be back where Australia is now. And I was detecting a level of... not outright opposition, but a level of concern in the [glbt] community about whether aping marriage is what we wanted, and whether we could come up with something else that had equal rights attached but wasn't marriage. "We've come up with something which is acceptable to quite a wide range in our community. Not to some – they were a small part of the opposition to the whole thing. I think in the beginning it was the best we could do. Seeing it now, in my personal view, we've created a new institution, which has got some independent integrity and credibility." If the move to marriage were made one day Barnett thinks "rationally I'd end up wanting to support it, but I don’t think there’s a need at the moment, and I don't think it's a burning issue. We don’t need it for rights, since we also gave de facto couples equal rights. A union gives a public statement and a guarantee, which makes lots of legal agreements. That's really all it does, nowadays." CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING TACTICS Politically and socially conditions have progressed enormously for NZ’s glbt citizens over the past two decades and Barnett believes there is now a natural shift in emphasis and objectives. "We're right at the end of an era of removing what was substantial discrimination against our community on lots of grounds, and really there is only adoption left to go, so we need to get to that area. Then we're moving on to special protections I guess, recognising vulnerability. We've had the hate crime debate, we've got the hate speech debate to re-have at some time, the provocation defense, which in a sense is getting rid of law which has been unfairly used against us. So we’re at the cusp of that new period of debate, really." Barnett isn't tempted to stay on in New Zealand politics for the coming initiatives. "No, I don't think it's such an exciting debate." Seasoned political animals privately despair of the lack of political engagement of today’s less 'community-oriented' glbt people but Barnett isn't so pessimistic. "We're as politicised as we need to be, and seeing it from the inside of that campaign, we were getting a heap of people involved, even if it was individual activity, emailing and so on. The nature of campaigning has changed. For example, I never went to a public meeting on prostitution. I think there were only three or four public meetings in the whole country on the issue. With civil unions, apart from our own community meeting to talk through the options and organise, there were only a couple of debates held… one very early on, and maybe one more. So we're not into the old form of campaigning, we're into emailing, we're into personal visits, we’re into a more organic and individualised system." Lower-profile methods will work just as well as the mass organisation tactics of past times, according to this seasoned campaigner. "We're into giving the media what they want: a good website and a spokesperson, and then they can run with that. They don’t need to know there's a structure with thousands of people, they want a good story. Giving the media want they want is much more important than saying there’s a campaign with a structure." There may even be a strategic advantage in lower profile campaigns. "For civil unions the opposition were a lot more structured and organised. And they probably couldn't work out who the hell we were, how we were organised, how we did things, because it was all very under the surface. But I think that’s the nature of modern campaigning." Union: Tim Barnett We'll go out for a meal with friends… at the same Thai restaurant. Ramon and I don't often get to go for drives in the country, but occasionally if we have a couple of days off we'd go to Jacquie Grant's and stay there. I wouldn't call it a holiday, but it’s certainly an experience! If we want to really get away we'll go to one of the Pacific Islands. But now with these Blackberry phones… we were in Aitutaki recently, and you can even get your texts and your emails there, so it’s getting less and less easy to get away. Perhaps after his retirement from the House, after twelve years of electorate duties, social campaigns, select committees and shepherding his fellow MPs, Tim Barnett will find time to self-indulgently settle into a sunny corner with a book or two? "Yes, I’ve got a whole lot stacked up. I’m determined to catch up." Jay Bennie - 6th September 2008    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Saturday, 6th September 2008 - 8:00am

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