Same-sex marriage: basic justice but no threat to the system

indexby Philip Ferguson

Last night the NZ parliament voted in favour of same-sex marriage (including transgender marriage), making NZ the 13th country in the world to accept same-sex marriage.  The vote was decisive, 77-44.

The legislation was a private members bill put forward by Louisa Wall, a Labour MP and famous NZ rugby player.  (The NZ women’s rugby team has won all the rugby women’s World Cup finals.)*

The Marriage Amendment Bill (now Act) will take effect in August and allow same-sex and transgender couples to marry.  It also means both people in a gay relationship can be recognised as a parent of an adopted child.  People getting married will be able to choose whether they are called a bride, bridegroom, or partner.  At the same time, ministers of religion will be able to refuse to marry gay couples and criticise gay marriage from the pulpit without breaching human rights.

The wedding of Lynda Topp and partner featured on the cover of Women’s Day: gay marriage is a basic right, but no threat to the system

Legislation like this requires three separate votes over a period of time.  The first time this legislation came to parliament last year the vote was 80-40 in favour, with some opponents voting for it as they thought it deserved to be discussed.  The second vote, on March 13, was 77-43.

The current government is a coalition involving National Party, ACT (an economically right-wing, socially liberal outfit), United Future (an essentially Christian outfit) and the Maori Party.  The National Party prime minister John Key voted in favour, as did the sole United Future MP, the sole ACT MP, and the three Maori Party MPs.  The sole ACT MP was a National Party MP in 1986 and a very vocal and staunch opponent of legislation that year which legalised male homosexuality (lesbianism was never illegal).  At that time he denounced homosexuality as vile.  In 2013, he’s still a pretty devout Christian, but now supports same-sex marriage and voted ‘yes’ in all three readings of the bill.

All the Green MPs voted for it, almost all the Labour MPs did too.  Hone Harawira, the sole MP for the left-of-Labour Mana Party, also voted for the legislation.  In National, 27 MPs voted for the law change and 32 voted against, including gay National MP Chris Finlayson, whose religious views trumped his sexual orientation.  NZ First, a party which combines Keynesian-style economics with conservative social views, unanimously voted against.  They argued that the issue should be put to a referendum.  In fact, all the opinion polls show a substantial majority in favour of gay marriage; one today shows support about 66% and opposition about 29%, for instance.

In 1986, there was a massive public campaign against legalising male homosexuality.  The conservatives, led by the Salvation Army, were out in force.  Every reactionary in the country was up in arms over the issue.  27 years on, the social reactionaries weren’t able to mobilise any forces at all.  The Salvation Army has long since abandoned the kind of bigotry it championed in 1986 and the most prominent devout Christian MPs, like the ACT and United Future MPs, consistently voted for gay marriage.  Deputy prime minister Bill English, a Catholic, however voted consistently against gay marriage, although he’s not particularly noted for being reactionary on social issues (just economic ones).

A couple of interesting things about this vote.

It showed how there has been a sea-change in both public opinion and in the ruling class.  In terms of general public attitudes, most people favour equal treatment and are pretty relaxed about people’s sexual orientation/s.  Reactionary opponents of same-sex marriage can mobilise no-one but their own dwindling numbers.  Indeed, only three of the MPs who voted against even bothered to speak.  And given that support for same-sex marriage is highest in younger demographics, the reactionaries on this issue are likely to become even fewer as time goes on.

The ruling class here is completely relaxed about people’s domestic arrangements.  They are for whatever arrangements help facilitate the exploitation of labour-power.  It’s immaterial to them whether domestic tasks are performed by two women, two men or a man and woman, as long as they are performed; it’s immaterial to them how the next generation of workers is conceived, providing they are conceived and brought up well enough to be productive workers; it’s immaterial to them which consenting adults are having sex and getting wed (or not).  The kind of formal rights that seemed so radical back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and that many leftists thought capitalism couldn’t grant, have often proved to be not only easily within the ability of capitalism to grant but completely consistent with the interests of capital.

Ardent supporters of the free market had no problem voting for the same-sex marriage legislation.  And advocates of the legislation were quick to point out its non-threatening nature.  As National MP Maurice Williamson, a supporter of same-sex marriage – he also gave one of the most cutting speeches in support of the bill – and one of the most ardent free marketeers, pointed out, nothing much will change for most people the day after the bill.  Moreover, as National MP Scott Simpson put it, “I support marriage. Marriage is important. The decision of two loving people to enter into a committed relationship is a good thing. It is good for them, their families, their children and our society. If the impact of the bill is that more people enter this commitment, then, to me, that is something positive.”

As gay writer and film-maker Peter Wells sensibly noted in this week’s Listener, “It is one of the curiosities of our time that this kind of new-right demand wears the clothing of the old left. And the old right is reacting in the beautifully Pavlovian way of refusing to have anything to do with it, failing to see that engaging homosexuals in marriage – entrapping them in marriage, I really want to write – is the best way to consolidate society in an ancient institution, thus making society more stable. . .  conservative resistance makes gay marriage seem a radical issue. It isn’t. . .”

In Britain, after all, Tory prime minister David Cameron pushed forward legislation for the right to same-sex marriage, while at the same time being busy putting the knife into the working class with a rake of austerity measures.  Back in 2008, Cameron even apologised to Britain’s gay population for the anti-gay Section 28 measure imposed by Thatcher’s government.

What has happened since the economic reforms associated with ‘neo-liberalism’ is that non-market forms of discrimination, or non-market barriers to equality, have been progressively removed.  In New Zealand this has certainly not happened because of mass social movements – for instance, there was no social movement mobilising large numbers of people on the streets to demand this law change – but because old forms of discrimination simply don’t fit with the economic requirements of capital any more.  Profitability is not assisted by keeping able women, homosexuals, Maori or other oppressed sections of society out of positions in capitalist companies and the political power structure.  In fact, quite the contrary.

Moreover, the products of capital have to be sold if surplus-value is to be realised.  And what has emerged in the course of ‘more market’ reforms is that there are now more markets – a gay market, a Maori market, a market for women, etc.  You can’t legally discriminate around very basic issues – like the right to marry – when you’re encouraging the very same people to function as a market for your products.  (There has been a similar change in official attitudes to China and the Chinese.  We had a White New Zealand immigration policy from the late 1800s until the 1980s and it was directed at Chinese in general; now new legislation has just given preferential treatment to wealthy Chinese migrants – money has replaced skin colour as the key determinant for entering New Zealand.)

Progressive social reform has always been an important part of New Zealand national identity and nationalism.  This goes right back to original New Zrealand Company ideology, through the social reforms of the Liberal Party in the 1890s (votes for women, factory legislation, 8-hour day etc) and the first Labour government (social security).  But there was also always a strong social conservatism within New Zealand national identity, one which was as likely to go hand-in-hand with left-wing economic policy as right-wing economic policy.  Thus legislation around social security, basic workers’ rights, the welfare state and so on was accompanied by socially conservative views in relation to institutions like marriage and the family and issues such as gay rights.

6a00d83451d75d69e201901b6320a7970b-800wiWhile the old conservative, discriminatory New Zealand nationalism is well and truly out the new liberal kiwi nationalism which is now dominant was on display.  Green MP Kevin Hague declared, “For me it’s as if our communities have come on a journey from outside of New Zealand society and we are now right inside”  while Louisa Wall said “nothing could make me more proud to be a New Zealander than passing this bill.”  National MP Tau Henare suggested it would give Australia a push to catch up.  We may not be able to beat the Aussies at much – like productivity, wage levels or most sports – but we’ve beaten them to the draw on same-sex marriage.

The passage of this legislation is to be welcomed for three simple reasons.  Basic social justice – people should have equal rights regardless of skin colour, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion and so on.  Secondly, the granting of more formal legal equality indicates a greater liberality in social views in the wider society and the decline of narrow prejudices.  That’s good.  Thirdly, the more non-economic issues are solved, or partly solved, the more clearly issues of class exploitation can be posed.  Capitalism is not built on denying legal equality to homosexuals, women, national minorities, indigenous peoples and so on; it is built on exploiting the working class and that is the one thing which is not up for abolition.

* This was originally written for an international audience, so contains some details people in NZ would already be well-familiar with.  Plus I’m a rugby fan, so admire Wall as an outstanding player while totally disagreeing with her Labourism.

Further reading: The 1986 homosexual law reform: gay liberation or crumbs from parliament


  1. Your point about the market is borne out today in a news report in the Herald that “Australian gay and lesbian couples are already lining up to marry in New Zealand, with marriage equality advocates estimating it will pump millions into the economy”.

  2. Only far-right religious fanatics ever said gay marriage constituted any kind of threat to the capitalist, heterodominant system. The truth is the opposite. The fact that in the U.S. it is the top corporations and the wealthy who are pushing gay marriage should raise questions about the role the issue is playing in bourgeois politics these days. Marriage is a failed institution, especially among the working class. Gay marriage is a demand mostly of the middle and upper classes. Besides having nothing to do with equality, the truth is it represents a financial grab on the part of its proponents, who seek special privileges based on state approval of their copulations and cohabitations. Hetero marrieds already enjoy such special rights, subsidized by taxpayers, of whom half are single and don’t derive any benefits whatever. It is telling that so many leftists have fallen into line behind this reactionary issue, ignoring not only radical history (remember “free love” after the Russian Revolution?), but focusing on an alleged “democratic right” to state-approved coupledom. Since when were couples elevated to a special place? The only proper stance for radicals ought to be to demand that the government get out of the marriage business. Every citizen should be treated equally, with no special rights granted to couples. The gay marriage issue represents one more nail in the coffin of what used to be a sexual liberation movement. Unfortunately, that nail is being driven in with the helping hand of gullible leftists who have themselves been co-opted by the heterdominant system.

  3. Actually David, on the bus yesterday, I was just thinking how far the demand for marriage equality is from the demands of the original gay liberation movement, which tended towards more anti-capitalist positions rather than simply legal equality within capitalism.

    I don’t think that’s a reason to oppose the right of same-sex couples to marry however, anymore than the limitations of capitalism are a reason to oppose the right of black Americans to sit on the bus on the same terms as whites.

    The problem, it seems to me, is when formal legal equality is the only thing fought for. I don’t know about the US situation but gay liberation and anti-capitalism became, er, decoupled in this country a long time ago.


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