John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Wall's bill proves to be a civilised affair

Louisa Wall is congratulated by Labour leader David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Louisa Wall is congratulated by Labour leader David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Something has been missing from the debate on Louisa Wall's same-sex marriage bill.

Despite feelings running deep on both sides of the gay marriage argument, there has been a noticeable absence of the bitterness and acrimony which marked the passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Act in 1986 and, to a lesser extent, the Civil Union Act in 2004.

The discussion on the rights and wrongs of Wall's private member's bill has instead been conducted in a pretty civilised fashion both inside and outside Parliament.

The other surprise has been the bill's retention of a hefty majority during its passage through Parliament. More often than not, such conscience measures enjoy respectable majorities on their introduction only to then start shedding support in the face of stiff lobbying by opponents.

That did not happen to Wall's bill. Why? For starters, public opinion was ahead of Parliament's thinking. Most opinion polls conducted in the past two years have shown a majority in favour of allowing gay marriage, at times by nearly two to one.

Those fighting Wall's bill - such as Family First and Colin Craig's Conservative Party - have been further handicapped by the absence of any nationwide pressure group dealing solely with opposing gay marriage. That, and the absence of any MP willing to lead the charge in Parliament, meant opposition has been unfocused and dispersed, and thus ineffective.

With National still riding high in the polls, the overall political climate has not been conducive for the issue attaining prominence and potency as a lightning-rod for any wider discontent with the Government.

These factors have given National MPs wishing to support the bill but holding more conservative-tinged provincial and rural seats some much-needed room for comfort.

What was crucial was the Prime Minister's early endorsement of the bill. That carried huge sway - not only because of his popularity, but because, as a conservative politician, his gesture cut the ground from under the opponents while providing cover for his MPs backing the legislation.

Wall has been helped by her Labour colleagues. Only three out of the party's 34 MPs voted against the bill at its second reading stage.

But National - as the largest party in Parliament - has been instrumental in the bill securing such a healthy majority. A total of 26 National MPs backed the bill at second reading, including 16 directly accountable to constituency voters.

There is also a generational shift at work. National's old guard has been over-represented among those MPs voting against the bill.

However, there may be another factor explaining the measure's relatively straight forward passage into law. Back in 2004, opponents of the Civil Union Bill sought to kill that legislation by constantly labelling it as a "Gay Marriage Bill". That may have been when the battle was really fought and lost. Nine years on, Wall's measure simply joins all the dots.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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