Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Little-known MP who electrified gay debate

Chris Auchinvole's speech on gay marriage was widely hailed as one of the best given by a politician in the debate this week on the legislation.

MPs from across the House say it was the best speech of his parliamentary career.

But for thousands of people on social media, the question was: "Who is this Chris Auchinvole?"

He is a 68-year old West Coast-based list MP for National who, until this week, did not know what "trending" was - until he was told that his speech was a hit on Twitter.

His executive assistance printed off 40 pages of comments from Twitter on the speech and that was only 1 per cent of the feedback, he said. There wasn't a single negative remark.

"Could you be my grandfather?" "Where have they been hiding him?" and "Chris Auchinvole for Emperor" were some of them.

"It's quite breath-taking for someone of my age to see how easy it is for people to communicate with people they don't really know," the MP told the Weekend Herald.

"It's really quite lovely."

At one point in the speech, he drew on the famous anti-drink-driving "ghost chip" TV commercial.

Mr Auchinvole is one of the more colourful characters in Parliament and there are few conversations where his Scottish heritage or West Coast pride don't play some part.

For a Scot, he has a very British accent, which he puts down to his "mimic's ear", acquired at an English boarding school and later at Sandhurst military academy.

But as he pointed out in his maiden speech in 2005, it was not a case of lairds, castles and silver-spooned starts.

His father was a Royal Air Force squadron leader who died soon after World War II. His mother, who had to raise five children on a benefit, contracted tuberculosis and when she was hospitalised for three years, he became a ward of the state.

With the assistance of the RAF Benevolent Fund, he went to boarding school in Suffolk and later trained for the army.

He followed his brothers to New Zealand and farmed in the Hokianga, where he met his wife, Elspeth, at an Anzac Day parade. A native of the West Coast, she was completing her teacher's country service at Kaikohe College at the time.

Mr Auchinvole was a lay minister for the Presbyterian Church for five years.

He is a justice of the peace and a marriage celebrant - the last ceremony he conducted was in the old Maori affairs committee room last year when colleague Tau Henare married his partner of 25 years, Ngaire Brown.

Mr Auchinvole insists he had no position on gay marriage until he sat on the select committee considering Louisa Wall's bill legalising it.

"Hand on heart. It would be quite wrong to say I have any particular sympathy for any particular group. I don't think that would be honest.

"I know it's a funny, old-fashioned way of approaching things but I think you have to go with an open mind and be persuaded by argument. That appeals to my Scottish nature. Even if I felt it were wrong, if it made good sense you have to go with it."

He said there was a big generational difference in the submissions the select committee received, with generally the older submitters saying definitively, "You cannot do this", and the younger submitters saying, "Why on Earth can't you do this?"

Mr Auchinvole said he was sympathetic to the older submitters because they, like him, were taught that homosexuality was immoral, illegal, and criminal.

"People's reputations could be lost on the basis that people thought they were homosexual, and I always thought that was an injustice."

He said that at the boarding school he attended over five years, "we lost boys at school".

Five of 120 boys committed suicide, invariably in the holidays, because, he believes, they were gay.

"They were good guys, and it was awful. We liked them all."

- NZ Herald

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