Civil unions: another high-water mark for rights campaigners?

The Foreshore and Seabed Bill is done. Next week comes the Civil Union Bill. Another test for this government and this society.

The foreshore bill’s final stage was no monument to democracy, ridden through without giving outsiders a chance to get to grips its myriad last-minute changes.

It will need amending. But the deed is done. New Zealand First, showing tactical skill and even a modicum of statesmanship, got its day in the sun and the cabinet disposed of its most difficult and threatening conundrum so far.

National rated it of lower importance: its leader did not lead the signature second reading debate even though it was he who made the foreshore and related issues his, and the nation’s, cause c�l�bre back in January.

The foreshore law is a defining moment in the life of the nation. It marks the high-water mark for iwi rights for this generation. It is the source of rage among iwi which rational argument cannot dispel; only the passage of time might. The same probably goes for the other side of this tense argument.

It is not the end of controversy over Maori rights this year. The Aquaculture Reform Bill, which reserves one-fifth of marine farming space for iwi, resurfaces next week for its final debates.

But expect the government henceforth to try to shift the focus off rights and on to development.

Expect the National party, on the other hand, to aim to keep the focus on rights and to highlight “special treatment” for Maori. That line shores up National’s core vote.

But does this tactic lay a platform from which to raid the middle ground where Labour sits? Don Brash’s attempt to fire anger over the Rotorua lakes deal seems to have fizzled. And in the latter stages of the foreshore debate it was New Zealand First which occupied the national reconciliation ground that a different National party might have claimed.

Still, there is the summer to come. Argy-bargy on the beaches and/or generous government settlements with iwi over customary rights might help National in the middle ground.

And the Civil Union Bill might give it another opening. The bill goes to a second reading next week, which will likely decide its fate. If its proponents are right, it will pass then and be law by the end of the following week. “Gay marriage” would then be possible in all but formal priestly consecration.

In the United States early this month at the time of the national and state elections voters in 11 states backed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. No states went the other way. No ban proposals were lost.

But the United States’ experience does not automatically translate to a majority against civil unions here. Though there is a large, understandably anguished and vocal opposition and many liberals are uncertain, it is a reasonable guess that a binding referendum at election time next year’s would allow civil unions.

But that is not the point. The point, for a government gunning for a third term next year, is that the bill is most unlikely to win any votes it does not already have in the bag but can lose votes on the ground that a line has to be drawn somewhere on PC initiatives.

This view could be held at the same time as a liberal view on gay marriage — oops, civil union — itself. Concern about PC-ness can be generic as well as specific and we have had quite a bit of PC from this government, ranging from smoking bans — about to afflict the afflicted — to prostitution reform to genuflection to iwi, taniwha and so on.

This is, in moral terms, a very liberal nation. Forty years ago it was one of the more repressed among “western nations”, officially closing bars at 6pm and frightened by flashes of nudity in films. Now it is one of the most liberal. Almost anything goes, provided there are no obvious victims. Policy and official practice accord remarkable tolerance to non-mainstream values.

That parallels the wrench of our economy from one of the most regulated and protected in the “west” to one of the world’s most deregulated.

But, just as economic policy has drawn back a little since 1999, so at some point there is likely to be a drawing-back on moral issues. Not for nothing is “the family” once again a core political phrase, hammered even at Labour’s conference 10 days ago.

Is the Civil Union Bill a generational high-water mark in moral liberalisation as the foreshore bill is on Maori rights? Some in the government think it is. Recall Michael Culllen’s warnings at the 2003 Labour party conference against stretching public opinion on these issues.

Brash’s Orewa speech highlighted the dislocation of voters from the government on Maori issues. There are stirrings that immigrants should observe core values such as the equality of women (muslims take note). So perhaps we are nearing the time when political correctness will itself be corrected.

But “correction” is not repeal. The open economy is largely embedded. Maori rights won so far are too. And so, for a time yet, is moral liberalism.