Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Same-sex marriage foes find togetherness

Louisa Wall. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Louisa Wall. Photo / Mark Mitchell

There was one last desperate, dramatic rattle from some opposed to gay marriage yesterday. That rattle came in the form of an email to MPs who were supporting Louisa Wall's bill to legalise same-sex marriage. It labelled the 77 MPs who had voted for it in its earlier stages as "you shameless 77, you hollow 77, whitewashed sepulchres".

The email was forwarded on by Green MP Kevin Hague, who had taken to more widely distributing some of the attempts to persuade him that same-sex marriage would result in the decline of moral society. Some were crassly blunt, to the point where reprinting them would result in complaints to the Press Council.

An earlier email Hague sent out from the same correspondent had pointed to the scriptures, the weather, red skies and omens from the heavens. The writer ended by asking whether the end of daylight saving was "an indicator to the amoral darkness that is to fall upon us".

Hague quipped "okay, I've changed my mind". He hadn't. But many other MPs did in the months since Louisa Wall's innocuously titled Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill won that game of chance and was pulled from the members' ballot.

In some cases it was a game of follow the leader. The Prime Minister, who had hitherto remained silent on the issue of same-sex marriage, first indicated support (or at least, was "not opposed") before Wall's bill was drawn but a day after US President Barack Obama voicing support for same-sex marriage. In turn, that statement and his later unequivocal support undoubtedly opened the way for other National MPs - especially those who were ambivalent about the issue - to follow suit although slightly more than half of them still voted against it.

Both sides hauled out celebrities to push their cause. On the anti side, the chief "celebrity" was God. On the pro side, there were the Topp Twins, as well as the host of others who grace our screens - both straight and gay. It was a case of winning over the people in order to win over the politicians.

Because if MPs were following the leaders, the leaders were probably following the polls which had started to show greater support for the proposal.

Watching MPs grapple with conscience issues can be revealing and it led to some surprising standard-bearers and new-found respect, whatever side of the debate they are on. The loudest supporters within National have not been the new young liberals, but rather old horse Maurice Williamson, as well as Tau Henare.

Henare's reasons for supporting the bill were probably the same as many members of the public: that it means a great deal to those whose lives it will impact on, and will have absolutely no impact on the lives of anyone else. Williamson started in his usual blunt fashion, hoisting his libertarian flag up with the declaration that he didn't care if someone wanted to marry their dog. He wound up by saying the bill's passage showed how much New Zealand had grown. The last word from Williamson before the third reading came in the form of a tweet which also referred to omens in the weather. That was a photo of a rainbow from his electorate office window yesterday morning: "A Gay Rainbow? A Sign nonetheless. All is well with the world."

It was uncomfortable for some, whether for personal reasons or because of the fear of electoral punishment. At the time of writing the final vote was unknown, but between the first and second readings, National MPs Gerry Brownlee, Jonathan Coleman, Murray McCully and National MP Ian McKelvie changed their votes after initially supporting the legislation. Labour's Su'a William Sio and Ross Robertson harked from the deeply religious Pacific communities of South Auckland and were two of the three Labour MPs who did not support it. There was an interesting alchemy among the West Coast MPs - Labour's Damien O'Connor voted against it, while National's Chris Auchinvole supported it with a thoughtful and amusing speech that delighted those listening. Mana leader Hone Harawira also squirmed about the bill at a personal level, saying he had a rather traditional view of marriage, before he was strong-armed into supporting it by his party. National's Chris Finlayson, put in the apparent quandary of choosing between his sexuality and his Catholic religion, opted for the second and opposed the bill. Louisa Wall and Kevin Hague also gained respect for the way they shepherded the bill through in a calm, level-headed fashion, putting most of their efforts into reassuring other MPs about the concerns they had with it.

But there has to be respect as well for MPs who did oppose the law change.

To lump all those into the camp of Hague's email correspondents does them a disservice. Just as there was irrationality on one side, so there was among the pro same-sex marriage campaigners. On both sides, the pressure amounted to bullying on occasion. It takes a strong person to stick to their beliefs in the face of such an onslaught.

It takes an even stronger person to stand up and explain why they were doing so. While many of those who voted against it kept out of the debate, some ventured in to explain their reasons. Some in National held the same view as NZ First that the issue should be put to a referendum before the law was changed. For some it was an honestly held religious belief. None said it was because the other side were "hollow, whitewashed sepulchres".

Outside Parliament as the bill went through its committee stages, there was a prayer vigil punctuated by hymns on one side and a roiling, happy crowd on the other waving banners that spoke of love. They already knew they had it won. So when the bagpipes started just after sunset when the sky was at its reddest, both sides sang Amazing Grace.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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