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Chris Finlayson MP

Mon 26 Sep 2005 In: Features

Chris Finlayson National's first openly gay MP candidly discusses his views on his party's election campaign, social engineering, political correctness, mainstream New Zealand – and gay marriage. "There's not a bigoted bone in Don Brash's body," says National's first openly gay MP Chris Finlayson, and he's got a story to back it up. "I was initially concerned that, as a candidate, my sexuality could be made into an issue," he begins. "Don was nothing short of supportive and encouraging, and assured me it would be no problem at all. He went and got a copy of a monograph his father had written about anti-gay passages in the Bible, and how they need to be re-interpreted in a modern light. He insisted I have it." Don Brash's father has quite a pedigree – the Reverend Alan A Brash is a former deputy general secretary of the World Council of Churches. In 1995, he wrote a book entitled “Recognising Our Differences – The Churches And Their Gay And Lesbian Members”. When his son took over leadership of the National Party in 2004, it was thought that this liberal streak ran in the family, until Brash's shock reversal of support for the Civil Union Act late last year. When it comes to issues around sexuality, Finlayson has already been painted by some in the media as being defensive or irritable when questioned about being gay. Some have suggested that this is in line with the party's conservatism on these issues. The truth is, he doesn't mind talking about it at all, particularly to glbt media whom he sees as having a legitimate interest. Understandably, he has a shorter fuse when it comes to the mainstream media focussing on his sexuality. Basically, there's plenty else that can be talked about, like his impressive CV: he's a barrister with nine appearances before the Privy Council under his belt, he's been chair of the Creative New Zealand arts board, and he's a trustee of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Foundation. He's even been tipped as someone who could walk straight into the position of Attorney-General under a National-led government, a rumour he is quick to squash. “That's entirely in the hands of the leader. It would be arrogant of me to start presuming anything,” he says. “I've had a lot of experience in the arts, and the law, but this is a new game and I start at the bottom. And I have no expectation of anything.” While he may find the label ‘gay MP' and the focus by media on his sexuality irksome, it's something that his colleagues on the other side of the house have had to put up with years. “Oh I'm sure. Maybe they've got a greater tolerance level than me,” he says. “I'm interested in representing all New Zealanders, including gay New Zealanders, but why one needs to spend time on these issues I do not know.” So why did he make mention of his sexual orientation at all? Being a single man currently, it's not as if there was any particular need to. “Then there'd be rumours floating around, and I can't be bothered with that,” he says. “I have no intention of lying or being defensive about it – what's there to be defensive about? But if that's the most important thing a journalist wants to ask me about, then they will get short shrift. It's a non-issue. Let's get on with the things that matter for New Zealanders, not whether a particular person is or is not gay.” Unfortunately, politicians and lobby groups on the right seem to want to keep making homosexuality into an issue. With revelations about the involvement of anti-gay religious sect the Exclusive Brethren in National's election campaign, and the divisive nature of the party's adopted dog-whistle politics strategy, has Brash – and National – thrown aside liberalism for the sake of political expediency? Finlayson would disagree. He doesn't believe National ran a divisive campaign at all, and as for that fluctuating definition of ‘mainstream New Zealand'? Well, perhaps we're seeing shadows that aren't there, he reckons. “If anyone would be sensitised to divisiveness along sexuality lines it would be me, I would have thought, and I haven't found it divisive at all,” he says. “We are all mainstream New Zealanders.” So, he believes ‘mainstream' New Zealand does include the glbt community. How would he define some of the party's other veiled terms? As a starter for ten, can he do what his leader Don Brash failed to do for last year and define ‘political correctness'? “Political correctness would be a form of thinking, both as to substance and to style, that dictates the way you are to express yourself,” he says. In all seriousness, this is very good. In answering that question, Finlayson has managed to do what no other right-leaning politician has managed to do. What about ‘social engineering'? “A group of people, or a government who at any one time think that, rather than the individual being able to make choices for his or herself, that the state knows best, and the state will direct the way in which people are to go,” he says. “An example of that would be the smacking legislation.” Given that definition, isn't all legislation a form of social engineering? “I think quite a lot of it is,” he says. “I actually do not believe that legislation is the great cure-all for the world's ills. I think there's a lot to be said for human compassion, forgiveness, and common sense. This desire to use the House of Representatives as some sort of legislative sausage factory which spews out legislation to create nirvana for people is not my idea of what Parliament is, nor is it my idea of what a parliamentarian should be.” Is the Civil Union Act an example of social engineering? “That's not social engineering,” he says. “I see it more as an example of badly drafted, badly thought out legislation.” More on that later. It seems as if Finlayson has given a lot more thought to what these buzz words mean than some of his colleagues, and perhaps some of his support base, have. Does he not see that, in the absence of clear definitions, terms like ‘mainstream', ‘political correctness' and ‘social engineering' have been used as a veiled boogeyman to covertly attack the glbt community in campaigning? “I wouldn't have thought that,” he answers. But surely he would acknowledge that National's religious-right voters took ‘mainstream' to exclude the glbt community? “I have difficulty thinking what a lot of people on the extreme moral right actually think,” he says. “I had members of the Graham Capill party [Christian Heritage] attacking me [for being gay], then I found out that within their own ranks there was some division because they'd heard about my stance on abortion, which is conservative.” The demise of the Christian right vote in this election is very evident – all those votes collapsed into National, increasing the party's power exponentially. Isn't Finlayson concerned that those voters will expect some bang for their buck? “Ask me that question in a month when I've had a chance to look at the final result, and what the analysis is,” he says. “I haven't really studied those figures to an extent to be able to comment.” He's sure on one thing, though: the huge swing to National in the provinces has nothing to do with concern over so-called “moral” issues. “National over the last three years has reconnected with its traditional roots,” he says. “We got caned in 1993 after the Richardson budget of 1991, and we lost seats that had been ours for years, like Invercargill and New Plymouth.” So how did National do it? “The key thing? When I look around that new caucus room, there are some pretty damn good candidates there. There's a good farming intake this time, you've got good businesspeople, men and women who have made a buck on the way through, the sort of people I would expect to see in a National Party caucus are now back in there.” Whatever the outcome of the election battle, says Finlayson, it is clear that National won the battle of ideas. “There's a recognition that our infrastructure sucks, and that we've really got to do something about that – particularly roading, but I think energy is looming as a huge issue. The tax cuts resonated.” But ‘morality' didn't? “I doubt it myself. I think people overplay the National Party thing about morality. People in the National Party know the difference between private morality and public morality. And they know with private morality it's nothing to do with the state.” Finlayson has been very upfront about where he stands on same-sex relationships and the state – or at least, Labour's solution to resolving this discrimination. He would have opposed the Civil Union Act, but a lot of gays and lesbians did too, he is quick to point out. So what were his reasons? “I think it's anomalous legislation,” he says. “I think its badly drafted, and I think conceptually its bad because it tries to engraft itself on marriage.” But why shouldn't same-sex couples be allowed to marry? “Well, you may find this answer to be horrific, but I regard marriage as a heterosexual institution,” he says. “And I don't think that in order for legitimacy for homosexual relationships, one needs to look to heterosexual institutions.” United Future leader Peter Dunne gave a very similar answer last year when asked about his reasons for not supporting the Civil Union Act. He said, like Finlayson, that he thought the state had no business in people's private affairs. But when asked if, in consistency with that belief, he would be moving to repeal the Marriage Act, he spluttered and answered he wouldn't. Finlayson, on the other hand, would do precisely that. “One practical aspect or one suggestion I think could work that a lot of people actually believe in is simply to remove the state from marriage,” he says. “You have a system like, for example, France where you register your union and if you want marriage you go to a church or whatever, and if you want some other form of commitment ceremony by all means do it. But I can't see, for myself, that the state has any legitimate interest in marriage.” But isn't this what we have currently? The ceremonial aspects of civil unions are completely separate from the legal obligations. Should one want to, it's perfectly possible to say a few sentences in front of a registrar, sign a bit of paper, and bingo – you're unionised. At it's core, it's a registration system, isn't it? “No I don't think it is,” he says. “It's constructed as marriage by another name.” So essentially, Finlayson is saying let heterosexuals have marriage, but keep the state out of it as much as possible, thereby removing the discrimination issue. Yet knowing the value our society still places on marriage, does he think repealing marriage altogether is truly a realistic goal? “I honestly don't know the answer to that,” he says. “I'd be speculating.” With the number of countries that have legalised or made moves towards legalising same-sex marriage, it seems that debate is likely to come up far sooner than any attempts to repeal the Marriage Act. Does Finlayson not feel as if his stance in such a debate would be denying same-sex couples a choice that is available to heterosexuals, and therefore enforcing discrimination? "No I don't," he says. "And this is hypothetical, because the debate is not on the table. We're talking about adapting a heterosexual institution for same-sex couples, and I think that's logically misplaced." If he considers marriage to be a heterosexual institution, where would he stand on moves to enforce a ban on same-sex marriage, a debate that certainly isn't hypothetical? United Future MP Larry Baldock proposed the bill in the last parliamentary term, and although Baldock got dumped at the election, an American-style "Defence of Marriage" amendment is still lingering like a bad smell. “I don't believe in that kind of legislation,” Finlayson says. “It's what I call feel-good legislation, or posturing legislation, and I just will not support that sort of thing, on any issue. I can't see what possible utility it has. One of the things I really worry about is the work product of Parliament, and the fact there is a legislative programme that could be devised to deal with a whole range of issues affecting every New Zealander.” Adoption for same-sex couples? “I can't see that adoption is a first tier issue at the moment, [but] I don't care who adopts children, provided they're well looked after.” Hypothetical debates aside, Finlayson is now an MP. What does he hope to achieve in his first term? "I want to be a good member of parliament," he says. "I want to be competent in the house, regardless of what role I hold. If I'm given responsibility for an area, I want to master it. Being a list MP actually frees you from a lot of the day-to-day stuff that constituency MPs focus on, and enables an opportunity to look at the big picture. Having said that, I want to achieve one or two things in the seat where I stood, Mana. The seat where I stood is a safe Labour seat, but I don't think it's had particularly good representation in the last decade, and I want to do a good job for those people as well." In other words, hard work and visibility. Openly gay Labour MPs Chris Carter and Tim Barnett were both returned to their electorate seats this year with huge majorities, in spite of being targeted by the religious right, showing that knuckling down and being the best you can possibly be will always win you votes, regardless of your sexuality. And with the election of Chris Finlayson, sexuality-blindness may finally be able to cross party lines as well. Chris Banks - 26th September 2005    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Monday, 26th September 2005 - 12:00pm

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