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Civil Union Bill Hits The Ground Running

November 29th 2004

Tim Barnett - Member of Parliament for Christchurch Central

Civil Union Bill Hits The Ground Running

The Justice and Electoral Committee has reported the Civil Union Bill back to Parliament, following a comprehensive 5 month consultation process, including hearing 352 oral submissions over 573/4 hours. It has made five noteworthy changes to the Bill and has recommended that it proceeds into law. The Committee report is available on http://www.clerk.Parliament.govt.nz/Content/SelectCommitteeReports/149BAR2.PDF

The Civil Union Bill establishes a new legal status of relationship, open to two adults of either gender. Under changes proposed by the Committee, the first civil unions would happen at the end of April 2005. Consideration of the much more complex Relationships (Statutory References) Bill has still to be completed by the Committee and it will probably be reported back to the House in February.

The Select Committee recommended the following improvements to the Bill: the recognition of certain overseas civil unions (or equivalent) and same-sex marriages as civil unions in New Zealand; an obligation to mention the names of both partners and acknowledge that the civil union is being freely joined into, to replace prescribing the words to be used by the two parties, during solemnisation (“the vow”); “changing the form of a relationship” to replace the concept of “conversion” between a civil union and a marriage, and vice versa; the insertion of a commencement date of 26 April 2005, allowing the first civil unions to take place on Saturday 30 April 2005; and clear separation of words describing married and civil union partners in amendments to the Family Proceedings Act (which governs the dissolution of a relationship), so “husband, wife, spouse” language will apply to married couples and “civil union partner” to civil union couples.

The Committee also unanimously recommended review of laws and practices relating to celebrants.

Tim Barnett, Chair of the Committee, said today:

“Hearings on the Civil Union Bill were a profound experience for all Committee members. The proposal to provide a new relationship status option to people in unmarried relationships, including same-sex relationships, raised powerful emotions on both sides. The job of the Committee was to separate fact from emotion. We did that, and did it well.


“Seven of the eleven members of the Committee, from three different parties, supported the Bill. That reflects the proportion of New Zealanders who, according to a series of opinion polls, support the legislation. We believe it is needed to give people in unmarried relationships access to a status which would make it easier for them to protect their relationship and to obtain rights already contained in law or established in the Relationships (Statutory References) Bill – some describe that as “next of kin” status. It will also deliver on the decade-old commitments in the Human Rights Act that law should not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, family or marital status; and it will encourage relationship stability.

“The Select Committee has spent five months dealing with the Bill. We received 6419 submissions, and heard all 352 who requested an oral hearing and were available at one of the range of times offered to them. We spent nearly 58 hours on that, and over 24 hours in subsequent discussion on both pieces of legislation. Of course, there has been active public consideration of the matter for the past five years, since the National Government launched a discussion paper “Same-sex couples and the law” in 1999”. (available at http://www.justice.govt.nz/pubs/reports/1999/same_sex/background.html)

Specific matters which have been raised in connection with the Bill:

The balance of submissions for and against; public opinion on the Bill Similar laws The differences between marriage and civil unions Civil unions and hate speech
The balance of submissions for and against; public opinion on the Bill A Select Committee submission process is not intended as a referendum. The fact that there has been a well-orchestrated campaign of submission-writing in opposition to the Bill is interesting but is not in itself a compelling reason to oppose the legislation. More important is the quality of submissions, their relevance to the legislation and the exposure to the issues at hand of the authors of the submissions.

Recent polls indicate that the majority of New Zealanders are comfortable with civil unions being made available to same-sex couples.

These figures from recent polls suggest wide-spread support for civil unions: 56% in favour, 39% opposed. (3 News, 07/04) 56% in favour, 39% opposed. (NZ Herald 09/04) 41% in favour, 37% opposed, 12% neutral. (Waikato Times 10/04)

Those opposed to the civil union bill were also opposed to gay marriage. However, the same Herald poll indicated 40% support for gay marriage.

Similar laws overseas

An ever-expanding number of countries are passing laws which give some level of rights to people in same-sex and, sometimes, heterosexual de facto relationships. Three are currently offering marriage to same-sex couples, and up to 20 are offering a form of registration or civil union to such couples, and in some cases heterosexual de facto couples.

The approach of civil unions as an institution paralleling marriage is compatible with these approaches. Since the outcome for people in a civil union will in legal (if not social) terms be the same as that for people who are married, human rights imperatives are also met. The pressure for same-sex marriage in New Zealand is substantially less than in many other countries (notably the United States) in large part because marriage in New Zealand law is not a gateway to a wide range of key rights, such as pensions. Implementation of New Zealand’s Human Rights Act over the past 10 years has addressed many of those issues. The Relationships (Statutory References) Bill completes the process of removing relationship-based discrimination.

The differences between marriage and civil union

As mentioned in the Select Committee report, there are a number of clear distinctions between civil unions and marriages. Among them are the following:

Marriage is available solely to a man and a woman. Civil union will also be available to same-sex couples. Civil union partners will not be referred to in law as husband and wife, or spouse. These terms will continue to be used exclusively for married couples. The Marriage Act provides for three processes by which different categories of people may become marriage celebrants to be appointed by the Registrar-General.

There is only one in the Civil Union Bill. Further, civil union celebrants can (unlike marriage celebrants) be appointed to serve a population group as well as a geographic area. The Marriage Act caters differently for a range of situations in which a minor is required to obtain consent to marry from one or both of his or her parents. The bill requires a person who is 16 or 17 to obtain the consent of each of his or her guardians.

In addition, civil unions may be declared void if one of the parties is subsequently found to have been under the age of 16 years old. Marriage has many religious, cultural and social beliefs associated with it. Civil union does not. Civil unions will develop their own characteristics and sense of purpose over time.

Civil Union and hate speech

Stephen Franks MP has suggested that the Civil Union Bill and the Relationships (Statutory References) Bills are disguised attempts to legislate against use of speech which denigrates people on the basis of their homosexuality. In fact the two debates are entirely separate. Many submissions opposed to the two Bills did use powerful and emotive language opposing the granting of rights to same-sex couples, and expressing strong dislike of lesbian and gay people. Some supportive submitters expressed their distress at this language.

But the only examination of this in Parliament is a completely separate Inquiry into Hate Speech established in August 2004 by the Government Administration Committee. This matter is not addressed in the Select Committee report on the Civil Union Bill since it is irrelevant to the work of the Select Committee on that Bill.


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