Speaker by Various Artists

Not afraid of the vote

by Michael Wallmansberger

A lot has been said in the last week to rekindle the debate on referenda and the Civil Union Bill after a welcome Christmas truce. Colin James published a deliberative piece on the merits of more referenda and the Supreme Court Bill and Civil Union Bill. Don Brash let loose with a dishonest piece hinting at referenda as the gold standard solution to all manner of controversial issues. And Tim Barnett began the response.

Colin James asserts some reasons why a referendum was not held on Civil Union Bill and goes as far as to suggest, "fear that scaremongers would commandeer talkback radio and tilt the vote lay behind a refusal of a referendum on the Civil Union Bill by its proponents".

On the balance of the evidence, I think the Civil Union Bill would have passed a referendum. However, even if I didn't think that, I wouldn't be afraid. A vote is just a vote.

If, as Brash argues, we have seen all manner of controversial legislation put forth in this term of Government and controversial issues should be put to a referendum, the logical conclusion is a proliferation of votes on all manner of things.

What does scare me is to think is how divisive this kind of regime could be with referenda campaigns spilling over into workplaces, families and community.

A debate on whether there should have been a referendum on the Supreme Court Bill is entirely rational, although I'm not an advocate for one. It's a fair question whether that was a constitutional change requiring the consent of the people.

However, the idea that all New Zealanders somehow have a right to deliberate on my right, as a gay man, to justice and equality before the law is one that I find deeply offensive.

Many identifiable groups of New Zealanders have accepted benefits from the principles of justice, equality and the rights framework within which the Civil Union Bill fits. I see no moral case for me to beg permission from them to do the same.

I opposed a referendum on the Civil Union Bill not, as Colin James suggests, out of fear that it might loose but because I didn't want to spend another year with all my unpaid waking hours taken up reading, contemplating and responding to the hatred and irrational bile that spewed forth from the bunch of extremists who think that it's their business to inflict their version of morality on me. There's a diminishing return as far as the quality of public debate goes. This debate was well roasted by Christmas.

I opposed a referendum on the Civil Union Bill because I didn't want lesbian, gay, bisexual or just plain questioning teenagers to have to put up with another year of stories tantamount to "God hates fags" spread across the front page of national newspapers and feel how that feels when you're young, vulnerable and isolated.

I opposed a referendum on the Civil Union Bill because I believe in people's right to freedom of their private beliefs. I believe in religious pluralism and a secular state. The Debate on Homosexuality (and let's not kid ourselves the debate on civil unions wasn't proxy for a debate on homosexuality - if it wasn't, we'd all have talked a lot more about the status of de facto couples before the law) was a strike to place some people's version of God's law amongst New Zealand law.

I opposed a referendum on the Civil Union Bill because I believe that New Zealand's law, which we are all bound to abide by, should be internally consistent and fair to all New Zealanders.

The extremists told us again and again civil unions were a step down the "slippery slope". Well, what about referenda? After civil unions, there could be MMP, The Treaty, abortion, immigration, nuclear free status, superannuation, Maori television, smoking in bars, and marijuana. And then why not a referendum about sex before Marriage, sex after 65 and, my favourite, should Asians be allowed to drive?

Should we have a referendum on tax cuts? What about hospital waiting lists? And then what do we do when we decide by an overwhelming majority to cut both? Have a referendum on the budget deficit? Or the exchange rate?

It's a slippery slope, you see, unless it's just homosexuals we want to subject to the tyranny of the majority. A referendum can obtain the consent of the people for Parliament's actions but it is no kind of a way to make decisions and should not be used to attack the consistency of and due process in the law.

Whilst offensive, the politicians' "debate" on referenda looks more like posturing for political points than any genuine desire to better serve the will of the people. Don Brash, a list MP, is advocating getting rid of list MPs. Tariana Turia supported a referendum on the Civil Union Bill but, presumably, wouldn't be so keen on one about Maori ownership of foreshore and seabed or abolishing the Maori seats. Wayne Mapp claimed to have answered Parliament's call on his judgement over the Civil Union Bill with a random sample poll of his electorate but there's a strong rumour circulating that his poll actually asked constituents a question about gay marriage. Most other polls show a substantial difference in responses to the two questions.

Don Brash and his contemporaries have been deeply dishonest in presenting the Civil Union Bill as an issue for which, "the Government and the Parliament can legitimately claim no mandate". Brash says, "The legalisation of prostitution and the institutionalising of civil unions are not matters on which the Government or, indeed, any political party campaigned at the last election."

Well, let the people decide but let them do it on the basis of all the evidence. Labour and the Greens both supported relationship law reform at the last election. Labour and the Greens, combined, won a majority of the Parliament at the last election. The Rainbow Issues section of Labour's manifesto and Labour's campaign pamphlet on gay and lesbian issues both say, "Labour is committed to introducing legislation for civil unions to give recognition to same-sex (and different sex) relationships and to provide rights equivalent to those of marriage."

What greater accountability is there is in a democracy than putting out a manifesto, getting elected, enacting it and then seeking re-election?

I opposed a referendum on the Civil Union Bill because I believe that law should be made on the basis of informed, diligent and rational debate. Many MPs and most journalists couldn't argue the detail of the Relationships Bill and are complete novices when it comes to the intricacies of homosexuality so how would we propose to educate and inform every eligible voter on that? And wouldn't we be better spending those resources replacing old hips and teaching kids to read?

The Select Committee hearing the Civil Union Bill received a record number of submissions and every person who wanted to appear before the Select Committee was given an opportunity to do so. The point - and the Select Committee addressed this with its recommendation in favour of the Bill - is that submitters stand on the merits of their arguments and evidence, not their numbers.

I opposed a referendum on the Civil Union Bill because I believe in a system of representative democracy. Apparently, taking an active interest in politics makes me rare amongst young people. I am more informed on political issues than many other people. Yet, I consider myself not nearly so well qualified to make decisions in my own interest as the Members of Parliament to whom I trust my vote.

It's not that I think Members of Parliament are a special breed. If there is any wisdom in politics, I don't think it is to be found inherent in the "wise MP". I think an MP's behaviour is determined by the influences upon them - their background, constituents and the ideology of the political company they keep.

I think I would soon know if the MP and party I support were acting generally against my interest. But many people don't go to more than the slightest effort to understand what any given politician stands for or does. Yet there seems to be a movement to make open to these people all and sundry decisions of great consequence to the country.

At the end of the electoral term, it's our choice who stays and who goes from Parliament. As electors, our decision doesn't have to be rational, nor consistent nor do we have to offer up any explanation for it. It's our unimpeded right. So long as the things Parliament does are no impediment to that right, I don't see what benefit we get from doing for ourselves what we so adequately pay for to be done by professionals.

Law is a package deal. Politicians are a package deal. You can't just pick the bits you like - social services without taxes, rights for yourself without rights for others, liberty without constraint.

Make no mistake. There will be a referendum on the Civil Union Act and every other Act this year. And if you believe in the will of the people, and polls as some approximation of that, it would seem that in December things were going the Government's way.

Michael Wallmansberger is chair of Campaign for Civil Unions (Auckland) Inc