New Zealand

The definition of marriage

On April 17th, 2013, marriage between persons of the same gender became lawful in New Zealand after parliament voted 77 to 44 in favour of the passing of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act.  This law passed with widespread support from the New Zealand public with most opinion polls showing up to 70% of those polled supporting same sex marriage.

This makes New Zealand the 13th country to legalise same sex marriage and the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to do so. 


 

To a large extent, the legalisation of same sex marriage was a natural progression from the passing of the  civil union act that became law in 2005 when it became legal for same-sex couples to formalise their relationship in a marriage-like relationship.  Although same sex couples enjoyed most of the rights and obligations of marriage (which contrasted sharply with the United States where there are huge discrepancies in the definition of “civil union marriage” between states) there were certain areas of discrimination against same sex civil union couples, particularly in the area of adopting children. Many people within the lesbian, gay bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) communities were also dissatisfied with being subject to what amounted to second class marriage.

Curiously, the Marriage Act of 1955 never defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.  Thus, technically, there was no legal reason why a same sex couple could not be married.  After three lesbian couples were denied the right to marry they challenged the decision, arguing it violated the Bill of Rights Act 1990 and the Human Rights Act 1993, which both outlawed discrimination.  In Quilter vs Attorney-General in 1996 the High Court ruled that under common law marriage was interpreted as being between a man and a woman.  However, an attempt by United Future MP Gordon Copeland to get a law passed to redefine marriage as between a man and a woman in 2005 was defeated in Parliament in its first reading.  This saw the galvanisation of LGBT communities to push for a change of the definition of marriage so that same sex marriage was recognised. 

In May 2012 Labour MP, Louisa Wall, an openly lesbian MP, announced she was putting forward a law to have same sex marriage legalised.  As it was a private member's bill it was drawn in a ballot in July 2012.  The National Prime Minister John Key stated he would support the first reading of the bill and the Leader of the Opposition announced he would support all readings of the bill.  After it passed the first reading by 80 votes for and 40 votes against the Prime Minister announced he would support all readings of the bill and public submissions were asked for on the legislation.  Over 21,533 submissions were made.  When the Select Committee made its report to Parliament in October they recommended the bill go ahead with some amendments of which the key one was allowing marriage celebrants belonging to an organisation that opposed same sex marriage to refuse  to solemnise such a relationship.  This was a sop to religious groups who objected to what they regarded as an attack on religious freedom!

The second reading in March 2013 was passed by 77 votes in favour and 44 votes in opposition, despite an attempt being made by New Zealand First MP Winston Peters to try and get an amendment introduced so the law would have to be submitted to a referendum, which was rejected by a large majority of MPs.  Despite attempts by homophobic reactionary MPs to get amendments passed to allow other groups opposed to same sex marriage, such as caterers, to discriminate against same sex marriage receptions and other stalling measures, the third and final reading of the bill was held on April 17, 2013, and passed by 77 votes in favour and 44 votes against. 

In the struggle to have same sex marriage legalised the arguments used by reactionary, mostly religious, groups such Bob McCroskie's Families First, Garth McVicar's  Sensible Sentencing Trust and Colin Craig's Conservative Party were based primarily on the belief that same sex marriage undermined what they defined as “traditional marriage” which they claim is between a man and a woman.  While this may have some validity from a strictly religious viewpoint  it ignored the fact that the so-called “traditional family” they spoke of is no more traditional than slavery or witch-burning. 

Contrary to popular perception what is now regarded as the “traditional family” of a man, woman and children was largely the product of the Industrial Revolution when extended families on farms were broken up by capitalist landlords who drove them off the land so they could convert their farms to sheep farms.  These smaller family units were relocated to larger towns and cities to work in the mines and factories either by choice or by force through land clearances, such as those experienced in the Highlands of Scotland. 

Even the notion that marriage is between a man and a woman is not universal.  In the Roman Empire and ancient China same sex marriages were performed but not necessarily uniformly accepted and there has been a long tradition of native Americans, reform and conservative Jews and some Pacific Island cultures performing same sex marriage ceremonies.  This doesn't take into account the practice of polygamy among many religious groups, particularly break-away Mormons and Muslims.

For most of the time the institution of marriage has existed it has rarely, if ever, met the idealised version that has been portrayed in most capitalist societies, especially in the media.  Under feudalism marriage was rarely based on anything even remotely associated with Christian and other religious notions of “traditional marriage”.  It was, and in much of the world still is, a form of social mobility for many women, particularly in patriarchal societies where misogynistic values prevent women from achieving anything in their own right.  It is the means by which inheritance is determined, who shall become the Head of State in a constitutional monarch and in many dictatorship states such as North Korea, or as a means of social and/or economic advancement.  Romance or love has had little to do with it.

When critics of same sex marriage argue that same sex marriage is an attack on traditional marriage what they are really saying is that same sex marriage is an attack on values that owe more to a Euro-centric, Judaeo-Christian and idealised capitalist version of marriage that owes more to fantasy than to the actual realities of what marriage is for millions of people around the world.  Indeed, much of the debate surrounding same sex marriage owed a lot to ill-disguised religious and racial bigotry.

For  workers the days when marriage determined inheritance of wealth has never really existed .  For better or for worse, marriage is a commitment between people who love each other to come together to announce that love to their loved ones, including friends and family, and to society as a whole.  No person should ever be denied this right to marry simply because the person they love is of the same gender as themselves.  By legalising same sex marriage New Zealand is not undermining traditional family values or traditional marriage because what is being labelled as “traditional” is anything but that.

Now that LGBT community has marriage equality what next for LGBT workers and youth? The answer is to fight for  genuine equality for all and an end to all forms of discrimination.  This can only be achieved by uniting with the labour and trade union movement.  It cannot go unnoticed by  LGBT activists that the National-led government continue to undermine all workers' democratic rights and the public services.  Rights and services that all need regardless of their sexuality.  The only way forward for LGBT workers and youth is to fight  to replace capitalism with  a socialist society where genuine equality for all is fully guaranteed.