A not-so-civil fight looms on Dalziel's plans for civil unions

Right, another messy Waitangi Day is behind us. The bunch of local yokels entrusted with organising events at the nation’s focal point couldn’t prevent disgrace.

Today Parliament reassembles. In Parliament the tangata whenua is all of us. It acts for the whole country. Tribes, being mini-nations, cannot.

What can we expect from our national assembly this year?

Korero aplenty, but little oratory. Much spark-free speechifying and too much asinine hee-hawing — especially, you can bet, at Winston Peters’ expense early on.

And laws, lots of them. Parliament is fructiferous to a fault.

This year there are some whoppers.

Margaret Wilson has star turn.

Her “fine-tuning” of the Employment Relations Act will have business lobbies in high dudgeon and National and ACT promising repeal. For those parties, employees are foremost a charge on profits; for Labour, Progressives and Greens, employers too often are rogue elephants for taming or snakes for de-fanging.

Both sides will argue theirs is the way to a high-standard-of-living economy and harmonious society. Both sides will be half wrong.

Wilson is also shepherd of the bill to create tribal customary foreshore/seabed title. Business lobbies, National and ACT will blast away on this one, too. For them, indigenous custom generated in the mists and myths of antiquity too often obstructs profits.

Both sides of Parliament will argue their way promotes unity in a modern society and the other’s way divides the country. Both sides will be half wrong.

The other star turn is Lianne Dalziel’s: a Civil Union Bill which will legalise same-sex liaisons. That promises angst, anger and apoplexy, as did Tim Barnett’s Prostitution Reform Act last year.

There is a difference. The Civil Union Bill is a government bill, Barnett’s a member’s bill. But the difference is cosmetic because, as with prostitution, civil union will be a “conscience” issue on which members will be “free” to vote as they choose.

Note: “as they choose”, not “as they please”. “Free” is not “free” as you or I would understand it: inquire deep into your soul and vote accordingly. Parliamentarians rarely assume that luxury, especially on bills of high moral or civil tension.

First, an MP must clarify on what basis to vote. In the case of prostitution, was the bill a practical matter of work safety, a practical matter of workability, a social matter of cohesion or correctable behaviour, a matter of morals or a religious matter?

Second, MPs are besieged by lobbyists for whom the bill is of the greatest personal, social or moral importance — in the case of civil union, for example, as liberator or justice or practical necessity or social destruction or moral turpitude. Some lobbyists, in obvious high torment (judging by their behaviour over prostitution), send nasty missives. And they can do damage at election time, or so MPs fear.

Third, not least, MPs are under pressure from others in their parties. When some of that pressure comes from Helen Clark, as it did on Barnett’s bill, only Labour’s brave or deeply convinced can resist.

Into this sort of wasp swarm will step Dalziel with her bill — or actually two bills.

One will accord legal status to quasi-marriage unions — and, by the way, not just of same-sex couples but also of opposite-sex couples who do not want the palaver of marriage.

The other amends hordes of other bills to eliminate discrimination on the grounds of marital status — for example, civil union will confer next-of-kin status. Some advantages will go, too — same-sex couples now get two single benefits, married couples a smaller joint benefit.

This initiative has Clark’s keen backing. It is a major plank in the government’s social reformation. Several other countries have taken or are contemplating the step.

It is important to note what the Civil Union Bill will not do. It gives legal status to marriage-like unions by homosexuals and others who are not the usual man-woman-kids setup. But it does not allow gay couples to marry. It is not a “gay marriage” bill. In any case gays are themselves deeply divided on legalising gay marriage.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last Wednesday placed great weight on the distinction. It said (in a 4-3 decision) the “dissimilitude between the terms ‘civil marriage’ and ‘civil union’ is not innocuous… It is a considered choice of language … assigning … same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status”.

That court had in November legalised same-sex marriage. The state legislature is due this Wednesday to vote on amending the constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Thirty-eight states in the union have already done so.

Dalziel’s opponents here will probably ignore the distinction and make the bill’s passage a hot contest. At the least, the bill will be tarred by those offended by Clark’s social reformation as another example of “political correctness” gone mad.

Will it pass? Probably. Will the public approve? You tell me.