Hard News by Russell Brown


The Treasure at the End of the Rainbow

For the great majority of those celebrating last night's marriage equality vote -- those who can already wed their chosen, or who have no wish to do so -- the victory in the House was symbolic. And that is appropriate. For what is marriage, beyond any simple right to contract, but a symbolic act?

Yet the symbolism runs deeper than that. For some of us, the comfortable passage of Louisa Wall's bill completes an arc that began with the torrid, sometimes terrible days leading up to homosexual law reform in 1986. MPs said awful things in those debates -- and on the street, it sometimes had the feel of a war. There was actual violence.

Lesbians, of course, had no practical need of law reform: their relationships had never been unlawful. (By contrast, sexual relations between men were actually a capital offence in New Zealand from 1840 until 1867, when the Offences Against the Person Act reduced the penalty to mere life imprisonment.) But they stepped up for their gay brothers, and for the symbolism that resonated in their own lives.

The bid for civil unions was also torrid at times, but something had changed: the opponents of these rights had begun to look like the fringe, rather than the mainstream. Brian Tamaki might have been able to get a crowd on to the streets, but they didn't look like the nation. I happened to be standing with my mother, whose personal faith has been a comfort through hard times, watching the Enough Is Enough march in Wellington in 2005. "I don't like this," she said.

By comparison, marriage equality has been the delicious dessert at the end. This time, it was clear very early on that Wall's bill almost certainly had the numbers. Everyone could relax, a bit. In the House, Kevin Hague, Grant Robertson, Mojo Mathers and others summoned deeply personal accounts of themselves, their families, their souls. At each reading of the bill, those people moved me to tears.

Almost as importantly, the debate allowed us to see our MPs beyond the usual tribal template. Maurice Williamson, witty, boisterous, reminded us that economic liberals could also walk the walk as social liberals. Chris Auchinvole told us that god-fearing conservatives were capable of searching their own hearts and consciences. As importantly, he begged our patience for those who had not moved as far, as fast.

The opponents, by contrast, were defanged, mostly harmless. Winston Peters was just a handy figure to (metaphorically) throw things at. And Chester Borrows? Well, you had to laugh, didn't you?

But something else was different: we watched. Has there ever been a bigger audience for Parliament's televised proceedings than there was last night? And we watched in a peculiarly modern, multi-media way, sharing real-time hugs and jokes (so many jokes!) and the occasional sputter across the social platforms.

There's something tremendously healthy about this kind of collective engagement with the democratic process. But it would be naive to think it can always be this way. There are rarely such clear, simple, soulful choices in, say, economic debates. Reasonable people can share ends, but have sharply different beliefs about the means to them. The clarity of the idea at hand last night was a rare treasure. The treasure, you might say, at the end of the rainbow. (This is not to say that further battles for inclusion do not lie ahead. But it is a moment.)

And yet, it would be nice to think some of it can rub off. People in these debates spoke overwhelmingly in good faith. They co-operated across the borders of their parties. They respected each other. Many of them, doubtless, will be contemplating that fact today. It would be nice to think that we might see a little more of that and a little less of the daily business of snark and barb. A good-faith Parliament would, of course, require good-faith leadership. We can only hope.

But for now, know this: all over the world, right now, people are watching our Parliament mark the passage of this important, symbolic bill in a manner that was beautiful, moving, precious and thoroughly our own.

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