By HELEN TUNNAH deputy political editor




United Future leader Peter Dunne has been accused by another political party with strong Christian links of failing to respect families.



The criticism from Christian Heritage stems from Mr Dunne's decision to vote for a bill which will give legal recognition to and end discrimination against straight and gay de facto couples.



Most parties have given their MPs a conscience vote tomorrow for the Relationships Bill, which will sit alongside a second proposed law setting up the concept of civil unions as an alternative to marriage.

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If established, civil unions will be virtually the same as marriage - they have to be registered and couples will have to divorce to exit them.



One of the few differences is that while same-sex couples will be able to register a civil union, they still will not be able to marry.



United Future has claimed that civil unions undermine the institution of marriage, and families, and the Christian Heritage party says Mr Dunne's decision to support one bill but not the other is inconsistent.



Leader Ewen McQueen said Mr Dunne was trying to have it both ways.



Mr McQueen said the Relationships Bill amended more than 100 laws to ensure that all relationships were treated equally, be they marriages or straight or gay de facto relationships.



The bill will also recognise civil unions if they become law.



"Mr Dunne often informs Christian audiences that United Future is pro-family and implies that they would like to see a public policy preference for the institution of marriage," Mr McQueen said.



"The Christian-family values constituency did not elect United Future so Mr Dunne could support this sort of legislation."



While Mr Dunne entered Parliament as a Labour MP, most of his United Future caucus colleagues have strong links to former Christian parties, the "families first" Christian Democrats and the then Future NZ , which merged with the United Party.



Mr Dunne could not be contacted last night, but has previously said he is comfortable about supporting the removal of discrimination against straight and same-sex de facto couples.



However, he says that can be done without creating a parallel institution to marriage, which is why he opposes civil unions.



MPs last week voted for the first reading of the Civil Union Bill by 66 votes to 50, with three Labour MPs, Ashraf Choudhary, Janet Mackey and Winnie Laban, choosing not to vote.



Ms Mackey, the MP for East Coast, on Friday accused gay MPs of hijacking the civil union plans and said the Government was spending "more time engaged in social engineering than on good legislation".



"I think it's unfortunate that a couple of gay members of our caucus have chosen to hijack the bill and make it an issue for and about gay people," she told the Gisborne Herald newspaper.



"It is not, but this has made it difficult for me to take it back to my electorate."



She would not say yesterday how she would vote in the future.



Associate Justice Minister David Benson-Pope had already asked gay Labour MPs Chris Carter and Tim Barnett to keep a low-profile in public meetings about the bill, so Labour cannot be accused of pandering to the pink vote.



Dr Choudhary, a Pakistan-born Muslim of Indian heritage, and Mrs Laban, a Pacific Island New Zealander, are both having to consider the religious and traditional views of those they represent.



They have said they will vote on the legislation after public submissions have been heard by a select committee.



The president of the Federation of Ethnic Councils, Pancha Narayanan, said yesterday that MPs such as Dr Choudhary representing ethnic minorities should cast a vote, one way or the other.