Enough is enough

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 December, 2004, 12:00am

New Zealand has just gone through the political agony of passing legislation to provide for civil union; a legal celebration of a union that mimics the law surrounding marriage. It is puzzling that the only people in New Zealand who want to get married these days are gay. Companion legislation, which is under consideration, validates de facto relationships and gives them the same rights and obligations as formal marriages in the name of equality. The problem with this is the suggestion that it will be retrospective; a form of compulsory unionism. While the Reverend Moon marries thousands at a time in South Korean stadiums, this law has the potential to be the biggest 'mass marriage' in history.

I was first elected to the New Zealand parliament in 1972 and I spoke about how dreadful our laws were that could imprison people for their bedroom activities. It was the Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, who coined the phrase: 'The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.'

Over the past 30 years, one of the most important changes in New Zealand has been the advancement of women's rights.

Thirty years ago, if there was a divorce and the woman did not have a job, she could get nothing. We made that a 50-50 partnership. Now, there is talk of extending that to a loss of earnings so that a claim can be made against a partner's future earnings. The argument behind this is that the woman often made sacrifices to put the male partner in business, or supported his studies. The woman did not get the qualifications she could have, and therefore deserves financial consideration for her life, based on this unequal partnership.

This is the law in Vermont, now the marriage capital of America. I am a liberal in these issues, but here is the problem. If you agree that the state has no business in the nation's bedrooms, can you support it having the power to enforce what politicians think is morally acceptable?

Most people, including myself, would support anti-hate legislation; that is, outlawing racist, homophobic and vile propaganda. Vilification laws are on the books in most democracies. Many, such as Holland, Denmark and Canada, already allow gay marriages. But when backed by overzealous enforcement agencies, such as human rights commissions, and broadcasting standards authorities, something else begins to happen. Reports from Canada suggest that churches have been taken to these bureaucratic authorities to force them to allow gay marriages; to refuse is discrimination. Perhaps someone should sue the Catholic Church to make them allow in women or gay priests. People should not discriminate in employment, housing or opportunities for education. But it is hard, even dangerous, to legislate to force people to be tolerant or respectful on the pain of legal punishment. The British comedian, Rowan Atkinson, of Black Adder and Mr Bean fame, was reported to fear an anti-vilification law in Britain because it could prevent the ancient right of making fun of our ridiculous differences. There were once laws against mocking the sovereign. Now, it could be against the law to make fun of the current generation of earnest believers in the name of equality.

Democratic progressive parties throughout the world have used religion to justify their economic and social policies of equality. Former US presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and early labour leaders in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, evoked the vision of the shining city on the hill. The moral foundation of redistribution of wealth has its genesis in the parable of loaves and fishes. Britain's former Labour prime minister, Clement Atlee, said: 'We owe more to Methodism than Marx.' Every society will face these issues; how to navigate while keeping a sense of justice, balance and good humour will be the challenge.

Mike Moore is a former prime minister of New Zealand and was director-general of the World Trade Organisation