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Barnett: Second reading of the Civil Union Bill

Tim Barnett speech second reading of the Civil Union Bill
Member of Parliament for Christchurch Central
Chair, Justice and Electoral Select Committee
Member, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee

02 December 2004

Submitters on the Civil Union Bill have described me as a practising homosexual (30 years and still practising, some might scoff), as a leading pro homosexual lobbyist and someone with a very personal sexual lifestyle commitment. It was not in any of those colourful roles that I chaired the Select Committee. I'm devoted to making the voice of the wider community heard in this place, and have for 5 years chaired what I think is a very functional Select Committee. I am proud to be speaking in this debate in the role of its chair.

When the Civil Union Bill was referred to the Justice and Electoral Committee my role as Chair was questioned. Of course, my sexuality was the issue. For two reasons, I was happy to carry on as Chair. The role of leading a Select Committee is primarily about process. It was a personal challenge not to generate complaints from submitters that they had been unfairly treated by me as Chair. We received none. Secondly, most people who stand to benefit from this Bill are heterosexual. So if I declared an interest so should have all Committee members, and it would have collapsed. That made no sense.

Sexuality dominated the debate. As an aside, we realised as the Select Committee progressed that marriage has a history of being used as an expression of the dominant prejudices of the society and the time. Bans on inter-faith marriage, bans on people with some sorts of disability being able to marry, bans on inter-racial marriage in the USA only two generations ago. Civil unions are not marriages. But the distaste expressed by biblical literalists towards the idea of two people of the same gender being able to get legal recognition of their relationship had all the flavour of using relationship law as a weapon to advance their prejudice.

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The Select Committee received very few specific proposals to amend the Bill, and we responded to each. We inserted a commencement date, for certainty. We abandoned prescribed words for the solemnisation of the relationship, to allow freedom of choice. We inserted recognition of overseas same-sex marriages and civil union-type arrangements as civil unions in New Zealand. We ensured that the language of marriage remained as such, and that with civil unions came new legal language applying only to people in civil unions.

The Select Committee process was complex to manage and I want to thank Angela Van Dam, Will Murray and Helena Strange for their outstanding work in keeping the floods at bay and making sure that submitters were treated well. And I want to thank our fellow Committee members for putting up with a vigorous schedule - and for those deeply opposed to this Bill, notably Murray Smith of United Future, for remaining calm and constructive.

I want to devote the remainder of my speech to working through a series of comments made about the work of the Committee on the Bill, and wider issues raised in the debate.

Some say the Select Committee rushed the process. Groups and individuals had 7 weeks to produce submissions, after an open debate on civil unions for the past year. Ironic that the debate started back in 1999 when the then National Government issued a discussion paper on same-sex couples and the law. So the Bill was a shock to no-one. The Committee gave every one of the 400 or so submitters who wanted to be heard the chance to do that; 352 responded and ended up appearing. The 75% of them which were opposed were highly repetitive. We then spent seven weeks processing the information and views collected. All that totalled 82 hours of Committee sittings. That is not the description of a rush.

Some say the Committee ignored the majority of submissions. In fact, as the section in the Committees Commentary signed by 7 of its 11 members makes clear, we heard what they said very clearly indeed and responded in detail. The numerical breakdown in submissions received by Select Committees is not a referendum. The role of the Committee is to separate emotion from fact. Some submissions were of standard wording, with individual copies signed by many different people. Some were from groups. One had a petition attached signed by 2965 people - for the Bill. In the last 36 hours my Parliamentary Office has received 1000 e-mails, 800 in favour of the Bill and 200 against. We can all play the numbers game. Members of Parliament are not statisticians, they are politicians seeking ideas and views for analysis.

The School of Gender and Womens Studies at Victoria University analysed all the submissions. Of the 3383 substantial submissions received, 74% were against the Bill and 26% in support. Of those from agencies rather than individuals, 45% were in favour and 55% against. And was it divine intervention which caused the submission from the Destiny Church to fail to arrive? We shall never know..

Of the submissions against the Bill, less than 1% were from people with direct experience of the matters dealt with by it. Of the submissions in support of the Bill 33% were from people with direct experience of those matters.

What I have described above is a classic example of a group who do not represent either mainstream New Zealand or even mainstream Christian thought who are well organised and have flooded a Select Committee with submissions. That Victoria study found from analysis of the 2001 census that a maximum 9% of New Zealanders held fundamentalist Christian views. The moral majority may be neither.

Many of the oral submitters against the Bill stated that they opposed at the time and still regretted homosexual law reform 18 years ago. I utterly respect their right to hold their views, but they do not - as I am sure Parliament agrees - hold a veto on such matters. None of the 300 or so opponents of the Bill heard by the Select Committee presented any evidence of how homosexual law reform and the expansion of human rights grounds to include sexual orientation had personally affected them, or provided anything but good to society. There were no unintended consequences to those actions. So what is different now?

Some call for a referendum on this matter. This Bill flows from the decision of this House in 1993 to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That was the moment of constitutional importance. That is passed. It is the job of this House to implement the consequences.

Some say that same-sex couples can obtain the protections of civil union through personal legal contracts. To quote a Wellington submitter:
"my partner and I have had to spend considerable sums on legal fees for the drafting of a relationship property agreement, wills and enduring powers of attorney as to property, personal care and welfare...yet still our relationship lacks any legal protection even approaching that automatically conferred by marriage". That is not equality and is not acceptable.

Some say that the Relationships Bill should have been dealt with first. That is nonsense. It is the Civil Union Bill which confers what many refer to as next of kin status. It gives certainty which can then be used to access the rights in that Relationships Bill. Both should come into force on the same day.

Mr Speaker, homosexuality certainly inspires fantasy. Submitters spoke of a man in the United States wanting to marry his horse (male, I assume). Of this Bill being the spark for mass explosion of New Zealand's volcanoes. Of homosexual Arab terrorists roaming the streets of Christchurch promoting this Bill. Of most gay men dying in their early 40s, giving me kaumatua status in this House. Then I read chilling submission CU748, in which a 12 year old describes homosexuals as worthy of death. Those in this House who reject this Bill need to realise what that rejection is validating, be it blackshirts marching outside or twisted prejudice in the minds of our young.

I commend this Bill to the House.


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