Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Gay marriage in the spotlight

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZ Herald
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZ Herald

Gay marriage is the latest social issue to be thrust into the political spotlight. For politicians on the right, the issue is reasonably unproblematic as vague positions tend not to be challenged by supporters so much - see Claire Trevett's Key 'not against' gay marriage. But for politicians of the left, the issue is a minefield. This is possibly why we've seen a perceived vacillation on the issue from Labour leader David Shearer - see: Hayden Donnell's Labour leader (almost) supports gay marriage.

It's difficult for politicians of the left because, on the one hand, they personally tend to favour absolute equality, and see nothing wrong with same-sex couples being able to marry. On the other hand, out of pragmatism, they don't want to be seen as holding a principle that might cause offence to voters. Hence, we had a situation during the last Labour Government, where there was complete official opposition to the idea and principle of gay marriage, and the introduction of civil unions was a pragmatic way of bridging the contradiction between principle and pragmatism.

For many in the gay community, however, the civil union 'solution' was seen as a cop out and a denial of human rights and equality from a party that claimed to be sympathetic and liberal.
Yesterday American President Barrack Obama clearly came out in favour of gay marriage and it was apparently his declaration that led to David Shearer to tweet that 'I fully support marriage equality in principle but would like to see the detail of any legislation before giving formal support'. But as Hayden Donnell reported, 'he was still blasted by some Twitter users for qualifying his support'.

So why did Shearer qualify his support? Lew Stoddart has written a very interesting blog post on the issue - see: "What a great day for humanity" would probably have done the trick. Stoddart is willing to cut Shearer some slack and suggests that the Labour leader simply stuffed up in his communication style and choice of medium. Twitter is not the place to let your main message be equalled by your qualifications to that message, which meant that 'it looks like fuzzy-headed waffly-thinking at best, or political cowardice at worst'. Stoddart laments that this episode is 'symptomatic of Labour's ongoing failure to articulate its vision', and sometimes 'sometimes being timid is worse than being silent'. Interestingly, in the comment section, Chris Trotter pops up to declare his 'unequivocal' support for gay marriage and to add a further observation: 'with Grant Robertson clearly positioning himself for a tilt at the Labour leadership, I would have thought the political costs of equivocation on this issue would have been even clearer to Shearer'.

So who else is supporting gay marriage? Claire Trevett's article, Key 'not against' gay marriage reports John Key's apparent shift on the matter, and points out that Key pragmatically voted against the Civil Unions Bill in 2004, 'because of demand from his electorate rather than his own views'. The article also provides some details of two opinion polls on the matter which both suggest that New Zealanders are broadly split down the middle on gay marriage. Also in this regard, listen to RNZ Morning Report's item on this issue: Will same-sex marriage be re-visited in NZ?.

Other parties have been making clear their positions. Those in favour of gay marriage include the Green Party and the Maori Party. Those not commenting, or sitting on the fence included Hone Harawira, Peter Dunne, and John Banks. Unsurprisingly, Colin Craig has come out in total opposition - see: Legalising gay marriage 'social engineering' - Craig.

Any future legislation on gay marriage will obviously involve a conscience vote for parliamentarians. Such votes are increasingly popular with the public and politicians because they allow debate and decisions to breakout from traditional tribal lines. But conscience votes can also be seen as a bit of a con, and in reality limit democracy, a point made very well in a timely blogpost by legal expert Graeme Edgeler: A matter of conscience. Edgeler provides an excellent discussion and explanation of conscience votes in Parliament and if you are particularly interested in the issue, you can also read David Lindsay's 2011 University of Auckland Phd: Conscience Voting in New Zealand - PDF. Also, see Parliament Today's Conscience Vote Issue Ties MPs Up In Knots.

This issue of conscience votes is particularly relevant at the moment, because as the Dominion Post points out today, the upcoming vote on the 'pokies deal' could be won or lost depending on whether John Key is able to prevent this gambling law change being a conscience issue.

Issues of electoral law, electoral systems, opinion polls and the politicisation of the state are being discussed a lot at the moment. On opinion polls, see Newstalk ZB's very good coverage of the issues in Peters calls for ban on election time polls. On political finance in local and general elections, see the ODT's editorial, Transparency in local body elections. On the issue of the political activities of state sector employees, see Rosa Studholme's Principals told to keep opinions quiet. And most importantly, Jane Clifton has written a good examination of the case for abolishing the 5% MMP threshold, but with the acknowledgement that self-interested parliamentary parties will block this extension of democracy - see: MMPa-leese - the electoral system review.

The debate over New Zealand's involvement in the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership is heating up. On Wednesday, Bryan Gould put the case against the TPP in: Right to be troubled about secret partnership, and today the Herald provides a counterview in its editorial, Fair basis of TPP removes cause of fear. But out of leftfield (in fact, far-left field) Don Franks argues that 'Scaremongering conspiracy type assertions about the TPPA damage the credibility of the anti privatisation movement' - see: TPPA: destructive to life as we know it?.

Other important or interesting political items today include:

* The shift of politicians between local body and parliamentary politics seems to have stepped up a gear in recent years - probably reflecting the rise of 'career politicians'. Speculation is rife about senior Labour MPs looking to shift into local government and he Wellingtonian newspaper reports that 'The drums are beating louder for former Labour Party deputy leader Annette King to run for Wellington mayor next year' - see: King for mayor?.

* Bob Jones is never pulls his punches and for his latest views on rebuilding Christchurch, see his Listener article, Turn CBD into a lake.

* Academic studies on economic inequality are very useful (and today David Farrar goes over the recent reports in Income Mobility in New Zealand;. But sometimes it takes some real life examples to appreciate the reality of the problem - see Stacey Kirk's Hungry kids scavenge pig slops.

* Why do houses cost so much in New Zealand? A big part of the problem according to this week's Listener editorial (The price is wrong) is the 'the most important, but little-recognised, causes of New Zealand's high housing costs: expensive building materials'. This critique of 'all-too-comfortable dominance of New Zealand's construction scene by Fletcher' calls for the 'shake-up of the building industry'.

New Zealand's military is getting considerably closer to that of the US. For more evidence of this, see RNZ's NZ sends soldiers to train in United States.

* Summing up the problem that the National Party has in finding future coalition bedmates, David Farrar says 'there are not a lot of good options for National in terms of post 2014 partners, just a variety of "less bad" options - see: In bed with the Conservatives.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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