Gay Marriage
A Prime Minister leading…. by following?

May 15, 2012 in General

In a New York Times survey released today, sixty seven percent of respondents believed President Obama’s decision to support gay marriage was motivated by politics, not policy.  The article goes on to talk about the concerns of White House aides worried that the sequence of events leading up to the last week’s announcement made the President appear calculated rather than principled.

If White House aides are concerned about negative perceptions surrounding President Obama’s declaration of support, it would be interesting to know if any concern is running through the minds of those closest to our Prime Minister, John Key at the moment.

Within hours of President Obama announcing his support for gay marriage, reports surfaced of our Prime Minister saying he was “not opposed” to gay marriage.  Further, today, the Prime Minister indicated he would support the first reading of a bill supporting gay marriage, but his government had no intention to introduce legislation to that effect.  In his view, such legislation is not a priority because of the small number of New Zealanders concerned about the issue.  If such legislation were to be introduced (as a members bill), he would not oppose the first reading, and was unsure as to how he would vote beyond that.

Whilst President Obama’s position on the issue has been kindly described as evolving (President Obama has previously indicated support for gay civil unions but not for gay marriage), how would one describe our Prime Minister’s position on the issue?  He voted against civil unions in 2003 (based on his interpretation of the views of his Helensville constituents), but then voted against legislation that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.  Our Prime Minister’s position does not appear to be evolving as much as it is simply confusing!

Expecting the Prime Minister to take a clear position on this issue is perhaps a little unfair.  Afterall, the fight for civil unions in New Zealand brought out the best and worst of those across our political spectrum.  The Greens were the most principled to deal with, taking a party position early in support of the legislation.

The Labour Government, although sponsoring the legislation, still refused to “whip” their MPs, meaning the campaign wasted a lot of time lobbying party members whose manifesto was clearly in support of the legislation.   A number of Labour MPs voted against the legislation, but the party still delivered 45 of the 61 votes needed to pass the new law.

Interestingly, none of the three National MPs who supported the bill – Katherine Rich, Clem Simich, Pansy Wong – remain in Parliament.  But the most disappointing vote on the bill was that of Tariana Turia, the sole member of the Maori Party, who voted against the legislation – her position, like that of the Prime Minister’s was based on her understanding of the views of her constituents.

So, what do we expect of our leaders when dealing with issues of conscience and, specifically, issues of equality under the law?  Should our leaders merely reflect the view of constituents, or should they seek to influence the views of their constiuents as well?  Should leaders only pursue an issue because of the number of people an issue affects, or because it is “the right thing to do”?

The answers to these sorts of questions are important, because they lie at the heart of a well-functioning democracy.  The minority relies on a sense of justice being held in the minds (and in the behaviours) of the majority – this ensures our issues are heard and, when right, supported.  Would homosexual law reform been achieved if our leaders merely reflected the views of their constituents?  Would sexual orientation have been included within Human Rights Legislation if it were left to the majority to determine its inclusion?

Whilst it is no accident that US$2 million in campaign funds flooded into the Obama 2012 campaign within 24 hours of the President’s announcement, there is no doubt that the President has still taken a gamble (albeit a calculated one) to announce his support for gay marriage.  Indeed, if the issue was gambling (another issue of conscience), I am sure we would have received a far more emphatic response of support from the Prime Minister.

Jeremy Lambert is a communications and management consultant based in Auckland.  He is a former senior public servant and parliamentary secretary.  He has also served as the Chair of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation, and was part of the campaign team for civil unions in 2002-2003.


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