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Benson Pope: Civil Union Bill Speech

2 December 2004

Mr Speaker, I move that the Civil Union Bill be now read a second time.

New Zealand is justifiably proud of its record on issues of human rights – it was over 11 years ago that New Zealand passed the Human Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the grounds of family status, marital status and sexual orientation.

This Bill is one of the most important pieces of human rights legislation to be considered by this House since.

Today we have an opportunity to stop talking the talk, and to walk into the reality of that shared vision of this country.

The Civil Union Bill is not about being politically correct. It is about doing the correct thing - period. It is about human rights and recognising and valuing the choices of people within our society.

Saying no to civil unions is to say that it's OK to discriminate against people who choose for whatever reason not to marry, or who in fact, cannot marry.

Saying no to civil unions is to say some relationships are "first class", but other loving, committed, stable relationships are for some inexplicable reason, of a lesser value.

Saying no to civil unions is to say some people deserve only the seats in the back of the bus. And I find that an intolerable proposition.

The Civil Union Bill enables couples, both opposite-sex and same-sex, to formalise their relationships in a way legally equivalent to marriage.

Couples have said there are many reasons for deciding that marriage is not appropriate for them. What we know for certain however, is that over 330,000 New Zealanders – one in five of all New Zealanders living in a relationship – have not married.

For these couples the availability of a civil union will offer choice. It will also offer certainty about their relationship status.

We shouldn't be surprised however, that much more emphasis has been placed not on what the Civil Union Bill offers opposite-sex couples, but rather, on what it offers same-sex couples.

Same-sex couples do not have the option of marriage. So it is no surprise that for them the availability of civil union takes on an even greater importance. These are New Zealanders in loving relationships, often relationships which they have been in for decades, but who throughout that time have been denied the opportunity to make a legally recognised public declaration of their commitment.

Human beings describe themselves by, and their identity is very closely bound to, the relationships they have. Discrimination against people by denying recognition of their most important relationship is a heavy burden indeed.

Love, trust, intimacy and commitment are to be found at the heart of all good relationships. There is no good argument for allowing only opposite-sex couples to formalise their relationships and to deny that right to same-sex couples.

Denise Irvine, in a recent Waikato Times article, encapsulated this principle with feeling and sensitivity. On learning a distant family member was gay but tragically had never felt able to live openly as a gay man, she wrote:

"I also learnt that gay men and women are not 'others', not people with no faces and no names who should live on the margins, spoken of as some amorphous flock who will destroy our very existence. Those who oppose the Civil Union Bill have frequently talked about its dire effect on families. And yet, gay men and women are family. They're much loved sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, part of the inner circle, not the outer."

This House must seize this opportunity to support family and say plainly, that no one deserves to be excluded simply because of their sexual orientation.

I am aware that there are those, often motivated by religious convictions, who believe that same sex intimate relationships are immoral, and that these relationships should be discouraged at every turn.

They are, of course, entitled to hold such views, and to express them. As we tolerate the right of this minority to disagree, and let's be clear they are quite a small minority of New Zealanders, I would welcome a reciprocal tolerance.

Not all people of religious belief, I hasten to add, feel this way. Superintendent of the Dunedin Methodist Parish, the Reverend Ken Russell, recently wrote:

"The Civil Union Bill is not about morals, but about justice before the law. I for one heartily support a measure that encourages, empowers and protects couples who want to make their relationships loving, longterm, stable and committed. We embrace such relationships among our Parish. They threaten none of us but embrace and enrich us all."

As one of the submitters to the Select Committee said: "People who speak against the bill don't know lesbians and gays in relationships. Their comments are based on fear."

It is time for that small section of society with strong feelings against the lifestyles of same sex couples, to stop being afraid.

Regardless of the sincerity of such beliefs, or strength of conviction, it is the duty of the state to reflect the much wider interests of our society and the common values of fairness and tolerance, which now bind us together.

These points have not escaped many of New Zealand's opinion leaders: The Press writes: "The emotive accusations about the erosion of marriage will be shown to have been so much scaremongering. Most fair-minded New Zealanders will instead see the measure as either no big deal or as a positive affirmation of both choice and tolerance."

The Nelson Mail: "Homophobic reaction aside, the Civil Union Bill is about acceptance. It is about recognising differences and letting people be themselves. For that reason it should be backed."

The Otago Daily Times: "The Civil Union Bill acknowledges long-standing societal realities: that couples do live together; that children are sometimes born outside of formal marriage; and that discrimination is unlawful and morally repugnant."

The Marlborough Express: "Parliament, like society, is made up of all sorts of people – gay, heterosexual and transsexual. They are single, married, separated and divorced. They have to be tolerant of one another's differing views in the House. Supporting the bill would show they are also tolerant of others as they go about their lives."

And finally the New Zealand Herald: Parliament should pass this bill, conscious of all the social implications. It will be a landmark for human rights and its time has arrived.

Nor have these points escaped New Zealanders themselves. The most recent poll, the Herald-Digipoll of 02 October, showed only 39% of New Zealanders opposed to the introduction of civil unions. In fact, this figure shows little change from other polls earlier in the year that showed only a-third of New Zealanders uneasy with civil unions.

As one commentator put it: this is a bill appropriate to its times.

That is because what is being proposed here is neither particularly radical, nor particularly unusual, in a local or international context.

Only recently same-sex couples across England, Wales and Northern Ireland gained the right to publicly register their relationship in a similar manner to what is being proposed here, when the vote in the House of Lords was passed by a majority of 251 votes to 136. Scotland is expected to adopt the laws in the near future.

Indeed, over the past 15 years we have seen a growing number of liberal democratic societies introducing statutory registration arrangements.

The trend has also started to become apparent in English-speaking countries with which New Zealand commonly compares its legal and political institutions: Canada, Australia and the United States.

President George Bush, while strongly of the view that marriage is only for a man and a woman, which is, and will remain, the law in New Zealand, said on October 25 of this year that he felt same-sex couples should have the right to civil unions, if states where they live make that possible.

I quote: "I don't think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that's what a state chooses to do." [end quote?]

As the Justice and Electoral Select Committee, which considered this Bill discovered, New Zealand's approach is moderate and entirely in keeping with International trends.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank that Select Committee, it's chair Tim Barnett, and my predecessor the Hon. Lianne Dalziel, for all the work they have put in, not only in regard to this Bill but also in regard to its companion legislation the Relationships (Statutory References) Bill.

These Bills were considered together because they are a package tightly connected. Together, they provide statutory and non-statutory recognition and protection to this new relationship status.

The Committee has recommended relatively few amendments to the Bill. But those it has recommended have, I think, improved it.

The passage of this Bill, together with the Relationships (Statutory References) Bill, will mark the culmination of a long march, marked by the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1993 and even before that the Homosexual Law Reform Act in 1984.

This march has taken us beyond a situation in which homosexual activity was criminalised, through what has at times been only a grudging tolerance of same sex couples, through to the point where same sex couples will finally be accorded genuinely equal respect and recognition.

I am aware that there are those who contend that this Bill is simply catering to the demands of a small minority. On the contrary, what this Bill does is simply extend to that minority, rights that most of us take for granted.

Passage of this Bill will remove a form of discrimination that is keenly felt by Kiwis who have been living quietly in long-term loving same-sex relationships in our communities.

Passage of this Bill will help foster a positive human rights culture in which human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation are shown the dignity and respect, to which they are entitled.

Passage of this Bill removes a form of discrimination, which has no place in the inclusive, tolerant and open-minded society that New Zealand is.

I strongly commend this Bill to the House.

ENDS

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