Marriage equality bill: the closet liberals

by Toby Manhire / 30 August, 2012
Jane Clifton on the 11 MPs that swung from opposing civil unions a few years ago to backing same-sex marriage last night.
Now here’s a puzzle. Why, having just a couple of years ago voted against civil unions, would 11 MPs have last night decided to go the whole hog and support full marriage for same-sex couples?

It would be nice to think, from a kindly, liberal perspective, that they have overcome their reservations and concluded that civilisation was not after all imperilled by giving non-heterosexual folk the ability to formalise their commitment. That, perhaps like John Banks, they have since been on a journey toward inclusiveness and understanding.

However, it’s just as likely they are doing the customary bet-hedging thing you get with a lot of private members’ bills: you support the bill going to a select committee, but reserve judgement in the meantime.

This is both a tactful and a time-buying avenue for parliament, seen again only last night with Green MP Catherine Delahunty’s bill to protect a river. MPs decided on balance they didn’t want to dump on the nice, harmless, green bill – which would have been the parliamentary equivalent of bashing a teddy bear - so sent it for a good talking-over at the select committee. But in the end it’s highly unlikely parliament will agree to tackle conservation one river at a time.

For the record, the MPs who said no to civil unions but at least a provisional yes to full gay marriage were: John Key, Judith Collins, Lockwood Smith, Maurice Williamson, Murray McCully, Paul Hutchison, Gerry Brownlee, David Carter, Clayton Cosgrove, Tariana Turia and Peter Dunne.

And, no: knowing these individuals, it is highly unlikely that they voted against civil unions because at the time they thought it didn’t go far enough.

Time will tell whether they have had a change of heart about the robustness and inclusiveness of the institution of marriage, or are just keeping their power dry. It’s also possible some have had the living daylights successfully lobbied out of them by the pro-equality lobby. And, again, knowing these individuals, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if at least a couple are voting yes for the ornery reason that they did not appreciate the character of lobbying by the anti-equality brigade.

In any event, it is very possible that, while the bill appears to have a handsome safety margin, it will eventually become law with a lower vote than it had for its introduction.

The other lingering question surrounds Banks, who did not speak to the bill’s introduction. He has been maddeningly inscrutable as to his reasons for supporting the introduction. Call us picky, but we in the press gallery did not find “Cos I am” a particularly useful existential positioning statement.

There are three possibilities here. One is that Banks, like the 11 aforementioned, is simply letting the big select committee talkfest go ahead, but reserving the right to vote no in the end. That, however, would be out of character. Banks has always been an absolutist by temperament.

Another theory is that ACT, or as much of the party as remains extant, has impressed upon him his duty to uphold its laissez faire libertarian principles. To a classical ACT person, this one requires no more than a second’s thought. The right to make a formal marriage contract is an issue of individual freedom and self-determination, it does not hurt or impinge on anyone else’s rights or freedoms, and it doesn’t even cost the taxpayer anything.

However, I’m pretty sure that Banks has been on one of those sentimental journeys I postulated above, and now genuinely thinks it’s time to put aside his old homophobic fears, in as much as he is able. In the same recent interview in which he laid out his Old Testament views about the origins of life, he said he had become less judgemental. Put this together with the fact that, since his foaming anti-Homosexual Law Reform Bill days, he has raised three children, and that he has nurtured a life-long compassion for animals, about whose welfare he can be quite militant, and you may well be looking at a closet liberal.
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