Jonathan Milne

Jonathan Milne is a former reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Gay marriage: Going to the chapel

Labour MP Louisa Wall and Conservative leader Colin Craig dicuss the marriage amendment bill. Photo / Michael Craig
Labour MP Louisa Wall and Conservative leader Colin Craig dicuss the marriage amendment bill. Photo / Michael Craig

Louisa Wall and Colin Craig lean in close. They look into each other's eyes.

"My wife knows I'm here, so it's all good," says Louisa, quietly.

The moment stretches out. Neither politician blinks.

"You can't psych me out," Louisa adds.

They laugh, the camera shutter clicks quickly several times in succession - and the tension is broken.

Forty-year-old Louisa is the MP who, as chair of Labour's rainbow caucus, took it upon herself to draft a bill to legalise gay marriage.

Louisa placed her Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill in the ballot in May.

She was riding a global wave. United States President Barack Obama had come out in favour of gay marriage a week earlier, saying gays and lesbians "should be treated fairly and equally". The next day, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key chimed in.

It is already possible for same-sex couples to marry in eight Western European nations, Canada, parts of the United States and Mexico, further south in Argentina, and also in
South Africa. Civil unions are permitted in at least 19 nations, including New Zealand. This year, six countries are expected to vote on going all the way: gay marriage.

But, almost swamped by the surge of liberal excitement, the Catholic Church and other dissenters have quietly made their unhappiness known. Some express discomfort at change to the time-honoured institution of marriage; others admit they are plain uncomfortable with the normalisation of homosexuality.

That opposition will come to the fore this week, when the Government Administration Select Committee calls for public submissions on the Marriage Amendment Bill.

Committee chair Ruth Dyson says she expects a large number of submissions. First will be Louisa Wall, briefing the committee on her member's bill. Colin Craig and his self-funded Conservative Party will be close behind.

Colin Craig, 44, has already been down the aisle.

It was an October morning 21 years ago that he married his wife Helen at Papakura Baptist Church. Colin and Helen each wrote their own vows. As he recalls, Colin promised to serve, Helen promised to obey. Then, that evening, they joined with about 120 friends and family for a buffet dinner at a nearby hall.

"It was not just a great day," he said. "For me, it was a hugely significant day in my life. I loved it: it was really a community event for our families and friends, as people got
together who hadn't seen each other for some time."

The two had met at Auckland University, and soon after their wedding Helen followed Colin into accountancy. They set up a firm together, but also diversified into property management.

For years, they have quietly gone about their business. Colin runs Centurion Management Services and a $1.3 billion property portfolio in Albany, North Auckland. One of the couple's companies also owns their family home, a $1.65m gated mansion in nearby Fairview Heights where the couple live with their 7-year-old daughter.

He would have a personal wealth of about $5 million if he cashed up his assets, he estimates.

But in 2009, he got politics, in the way that some people get religion. It was the smacking debate that politicised him - and the Government's casual disregard, as he sees it, for the thousands of conservative New Zealanders who marched and voted against a ban on smacking children. He spent nearly $300,000 opposing the law.

Then came the Supercity. Aucklanders didn't want it, he says, but the Government pushed on regardless. So he ran for mayor. He invested $570,000 in the race, coming in third with a creditable 9 per cent of the vote.

By this point, he says, he had thousands of supporters-and they wanted him to lead them. If not to the Auckland Town Hall, then to the Beehive in Wellington. National, Act and the Greens all asked him to stand, he says.

Instead, he founded the Conservative Party, bought cyan blue ties for all the candidates, and ran for Parliament on a platform of traditional moral values, binding citizens-initiated referenda and $1.6m of his own money.

"I've never done anything in my life half-heartedly," he says. "I think about something really well, and then I do it. For me, it was never an issue about money. Obviously, it was a discussion I had with my wife. I didn't go, hey, by the way, I've decided politics is great and I'm spending all our money on it."

On Wednesday evening, Colin and Helen Craig hosted a public meeting at Nga Tapuwae Community Centre in South Auckland, along with Fa'avae Gagamoe, the party's imposing Mangere candidate. About 75 people turned up, including a leading Pacific Island Congregation church minister.

For 3½hours, they canvassed every topic from education, employment and the economy to-yes-gay marriage. At the end, one big Pacific Island woman announced that her family had always voted Labour, "but nowI'mvoting light blue".

And Reverend Asora Amosa says afterwards that he will be commending the Conservative Party to his congregation of 300. "I felt the integrity of the man," Amosa says. "I am impressed by his courage to stand on family values, like the definition of marriage being between a man and a woman."

Contrary to the public perception of Colin as some hands-in-the-air, hootin', hollerin' fundamentalist Christian, it's three years since he's crossed the threshold of a church. That was for the his niece's dedication ceremony. Don't get him wrong, he does regard himself as a mainstream protestant, but he's not a churchgoer.

Tomorrow, though, he'll be going to the Chapel . . .

There was no aisle at Louisa Hareruia Wall's marae wedding. In fact, by traditional definitions, there was probably no wedding, certainly no marriage.

Prue Tamatekapua is the woman she calls her wife. As two women, Louisa and Prue aren't allowed to marry under New Zealand law - but two years ago, they had one hell of a civil union ceremony.

Lots of friends and family, as well as ministers of the Ratana and Catholic churches, joined them at Te Mahurehure Marae in Auckland's sunny Pt Chevalier.

"It was a very happy celebration with friends and family and represented a diversity of community who came to support and share the occasion with us," Louisa says. "The marae setting helped facilitate waiata after every speech-it was thoroughly entertaining and we had much fun."

Louisa, who has represented New Zealand in both netball and rugby, is just as single-minded as Colin.

When she was 12, she got part-time work washing dishes at Cobb & Co to help the household budget. At 14, she decided she wanted to be a Silver Fern - at 17, she was selected for the squad.

She foreswore such evils as boys and cigarettes (she took a puff once then threw it in Lake Taupo). Her career has been full: she has occupied senior roles at the Human Rights Commission, AUT University, Counties Manukau District Health Board, the Families Commission and the Office of the Children's Commissioner, culminating in her election to Parliament for Labour.

She and Prue, a lawyer and motherof- two, have bought a million-dollar house near the Botanic Gardens in Louisa's Manurewa electorate.

The same night that Colin was addressing a public meeting in Mangere, Louisa spoke to schoolgirls and their mums at Manurewa Intermediate School, for a "girls can do anything" evening.

Alongside Haidee Tiffen (former New Zealand women's cricket captain) and Hayley Holt (ballroom dancer and TV sports reporter, better known for dating All Black captain Richie McCaw), she impressed on the girls the importance of values, hard work and passion.

"What are you passionate about? Something has to make you want to shoot goals at midnight in the middle of winter," she told them. "Life's pretty simple really: if you work hard enough, you'll achieve."

What Louisa neglected to mention to the schoolgirls is that girls can't quite do everything: legally, they still can't marry their girlfriends.

Not that she and Prue have any intention of taking advantage of Louisa's proposed law change. They are perfectly happy with their civil union and have no plans to upgrade (my word, not theirs) to a more traditional marriage.

"We've formalised our relationship, we've had a civil union and we're happy. But it's not about us, it's about everybody having a choice."

So tomorrow, she'll be going to the Chapel . . .

It's midday at Chapel. Service begins at the restaurant on Ponsonby Rd, Auckland. The barman opens the door, and the first diners take their seats and order their drinks.

By day, Chapel is another mid-range bistro on a road full of mid-range bistros. By night, it can get busy and sometimes sleazy.Onat least one occasion last year, patrons were welcomed at the door by topless alcohol promo girls. And the previous Christmas, school teacher Dan Eichblatt publicly complained that he and his boyfriend, walking hand-in-hand on a summer evening, had been verbally abused by patrons drinking on the street outside Chapel. The owner later apologised.

It is that kind of bullying that Louisa, tough and uncompromising, says she wants to stop. The previous night she had told the intermediate girls that whenever she saw someone being picked on, she had stepped in and told the bully to stop. Now, she says too many teenagers are taking their own lives, often confused and scared as they discover their sexuality. She wants to eliminate discrimination against gays and lesbians, by embracing them into the wider community.

Colin, too, sees himself as the sort of person who intervenes to stop bullying, to protect the oppressed.

"I'm the guy that, if I saw someone being bullied, I would always stand up for that person."

Colin is a conundrum, though. He identifies as the protector, but might be characterised by the gay community as the bully, the person who wants same-sex couples to remain secondclass citizens. In person, he's so mild and geeky that one almost feels the need to protect him from the bullies. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth, the Bible does say.

The Bible also commends us to eat, drink and be merry. So Louisa orders the seared kingfish fillet with couscous and pineapple,Colin orders the buffalo chicken wings with blue cheese sauce, and the waiter fills the glasses with a tolerable West Australian shiraz.

Food. It's a crude illustration of Colin and Louisa's differing approaches to marriage.

Colin sees marriage as a traditional institution, worthy of legal protection in its own right. "We're very much a traditional family," he says, describing his own marriage. "I saw myself as the breadwinner, having to go out and work. Helen thought that was great! But she kicked me out of the kitchen in the first week. She said, I didn't get married so you can do the cooking. I think she, like me, came froma typical, normal, mum-and-dad nuclear family. We carried that model into our own marriage."

Louisa listens, almost aghast. There is a long pause.

Finally, she laughs. "We both cook," she says. "It's more a partnership approach. But Prue's better at following gourmet recipes."

Louisa doesn't see the institution as needing legal protection. She sees the people as needing protection - that we need to ensure equality within social institutions like marriage.

"I was lucky, because when I eventually came out, the first thing my parents said was, they loved me," she explains." We should be doing everything we can to make sure our kids grow up knowing they're valued and loved, that they have a place in society."

Lady Gaga's "Born this Way" campaign, TV shows like Modern Family and Grey's Anatomy that depict gay couples bringing up children - they all help reassure gay people that they have an equal place in society. And, she says, our laws need to do the same. "It's about the inherent dignity of every New Zealander, irrespective of sexuality."

Dignity, schmignity. Colin's not having a bar of that. He's perfectly happy for the state to legitimise and protect the legal status of same-sex couples through civil unions - but why do they need to mess around with the sacred institution of marriage?

He describes five different reasons why he and his supporters object to gay marriage. Firstly, the institution of marriage is sacrosanct, bedded in years of cultural and religious tradition; secondly, trying to protect the human rights of gay people will infringe on the human rights of marriage counsellors, school teachers and priests who will be forced to endorse gay marriage.

So does he believe a homosexual act is a sin? He squirms. "Well, I'm not going to answer a theological question. Yeah, you know, I'm not sure I can always give an absolute 'no' to that."

Beyond that, he and his supporters argue, gay marriage, gay parenting and gay adoption are not good for society. "I do believe that a mum and a dad is the best option."

Changing the law is simply not a priority for a cash-strapped government, honoured plea of the social conservative . . . why change what ain't broke?

"Is marriage discriminatory? Ofcourse it is," Colin says. "Louisa isn't proposing polygamous or adult incestuous marriages-we both agree there need to be lines. It's just a question of where those lines are drawn."

The two politicians disagree over whether Parliament needs to protect the rights of the gay and lesbian minority, or protect the established institutions of the majority. But more basically still, they differ over the very fundamentals of our democracy.

Louisa believes we elect MPs because we trust their values and their judgment; we trust them to invest time in informing themselves and making a hundred decisions every day, based on the values they espoused in their election campaign. We charge them with making balanced decisions for the good of everyone in society, rich or poor, weak or strong. And if they breach the trust, we'll boot 'em out in three years' time.

Colin doesn't trust politicians. He makes no bones about it. Time after time, he says, we voters have told them do one thing - and they've done the opposite. He wants binding citizens initiated referenda on the big social and moral questions, acting as a check on unaccountable politicians. The people, he says, always get it right. The MMP electoral system. Maintaining firefighter numbers. Cutting MP numbers. Hard labour for violent criminals. Keeping superannuation saving voluntary. Smacking kids. He rolls through the list. Voters have got it right every time, he says. And most of the time, politicians have gone ahead regardless and done the opposite.

That's why he believes gay marriage should be put to a national vote.

Louisa demurs. The trouble with relying on referendums, she says, is they're not very good at protecting minorities- like gays and lesbians.

Colin: "Some people will vote very narrowly. Maybe they've never met a gay person, or they've got some idea of who they are and think they're incredibly odd or different. While some people will vote like that, there will be a lot of people who take the view, what is good for us as a country or a society?"

Louisa: "But look at yourself! You wouldn't vote for it."

Colin: "No I wouldn't - not changing marriage, no."

Louisa: "So how can you say what you just said, then? That there are people who would vote to protect minorities from a majority culture."

Colin: "'Cos I don't see this issue as one of protection. It's one of enablement."

Louisa: "So this isn't about civil rights, fighting for the rights of black people, women, Maori -"

Colin:"No, I don't see it as such. I realise you do. But I don't."

Louisa: "Well, that's a fundamental difference."

Colin: "Yeah, it is." There's not much the two agree on, but they do agree to disagree. Oh, and they both opt for peppermint tea instead of Chapel's excellent warm chocolate brownie.

Today, they were both going to the Chapel-but they were never going to marry their views.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 22 Dec 2014 12:29:36 Processing Time: 811ms