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David Benson-Pope 3rd Reading Spch - Civil Unions

(Thursday, 09 December, 2004)



(Embargoed until delivered)
Mr Speaker – I move that the Civil Union Bill now be read a third time.

Today we will, finally, pass this, the Civil Union Bill, into law.

We pass into law a Bill that is necessary if the government is to live up to its responsibilities under the Human Rights Act 1993.

We pass into law a Bill that will enable our country to join the ranks of the now numerous countries who recognise that same sex couples, no less than opposite-sex couples, are entitled to have their relationships recognised and, if they wish, solemnised.

And we pass into law a Bill that signals our growing maturity as a nation.

There remain a few who say that they’re sorry it has reached this point. I say I am sorry only that it’s taken so long, and that there are still members of this House who oppose it.

After all, what is being asked for here seems so modest.

Marriage remains something solely available to a man and a woman. Civil unions offer an alternative to those unable to marry, or who do not wish to marry. Civil unions are to be a new relationship option that takes nothing from anyone else, while providing choice to people currently denied such.

Some argue that only a small minority of the population might ever want to enter into a civil union. Does this make removing discrimination any less worthwhile?

As the majority of New Zealanders who have supported this Bill seem to have understood only too well, human rights are not measured by numbers through a turnstile.

The uproar over the Civil Union Bill has not been dissimilar to that which occurred almost twenty years ago over the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. There are, of course, some differences. Most notably, how much better informed people are today.

The notable exception to that has been the many arguments proffered in this House from the opposition benches. The wild and woolly phantoms they produced – lame excuses for not supporting something that is so clearly the right course of action; the almost total lack of intellectual rigour, or common humanity.

And in that way, sadly, one constant has remained from the debate of two decades ago. That is, the arguments put forward by those in opposition are still so purely emotive, still fuelled by fear and misunderstanding.

There is, in fact, no danger to the family, from civil unions, as the experience of Denmark and other countries that have introduced such arrangements has amply proved.

There has simply been no negative impact whatsoever on marriage, or on families in those countries.

And I predict something else that will prove to be similar, as well. That once this Bill is passed, and the sky doesn’t fall in, the opposition to it will very quickly evaporate.

There have, of course, been calls at the 11th hour to delay the passage of the legislation until a public referendum has been held.

But a referendum would clearly be inappropriate.

I haven’t rejected the idea of a referendum because I think that a majority of the public might vote against it. The public opinion polls tell us that, in fact, they are most unlikely to do that.

Rather, a referendum would be inappropriate because human rights are simply not the appropriate subject of a referendum.

What could it possibly mean to say that New Zealand’s human rights legislation, including the Human Rights Act 1993, should only be applied in a particular instance if the majority of the population decides that it should be?

What kind of protection for a minority is that?

It is not an unremarkable coincidence that tomorrow is International Human Rights Day, celebrating the signing of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

The words of Louise Arbour, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, seem particularly apt today: "Human rights are our common heritage and their realisation depends on the contributions that each and every one of us is willing to make, individually and collectively, now and in the future."

There are same sex couples in New Zealand who have been together in a loving relationship for many years, and in some cases many decades, and who have throughout that time been denied the opportunity to make a state-sanctioned public declaration of their relationship, which would be recognised and protected by the law.

Today, we will end that situation.

Many people have spoken and written in favour of the Civil Union Bill; in submissions to the Select Committee which considered the Bill and in letters of support that have been flooding into my office over the past few days. I read some to you now:

"New Zealand has always been a front-runner in recognising that all people should have the same rights, and I hope we can keep up this fine tradition. As a Christian, my support for these Bills is consistent with, and mandated by, my faith. Christian teaching is based on the message of love and treating others with dignity and respect."

"My partner and I have been in a committed and loving relationship now for 23 years. In thinking what I wanted to write to encourage you to support the Civil Union Bill, I was thinking of describing the positions of responsibility we each hold in our work, our contributions to the wider community in a variety of ways and our faith journeys. Then I decided not to. Why should I feel I have to convince you that as part of a lesbian couple, I am a decent and honourable person and worthy of having my relationship given legal recognition? Ours is not a second rate relationship."

"Currently our relationship lives only on the fringes of the law and we are not eligible to the legal protections that support those who are married. This is not only a matter of personal interest to us, but an issue of justice. There are no valid reasons why we, and others like us, should be discriminated against."

Listen to those voices speaking in favour of the Civil Union Bill.

Listen to those voices telling us that we should vote for what we know is right.

Listen to those voices, the voices of people who have been discriminated against for long enough, and who have suffered from that discrimination.

Listen to those voices.

This Bill takes away nothing, but gives that simplest of things – the formal recognition and respect by our laws for the individual choices of New Zealanders.

I commend this Bill to the House.


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