Let's see if we can debate the place of marriage in our society without divorcing ourselves from reality and the importance of preserving age-old customs

I've just got back from a trip to London to celebrate a friend's wedding. It was fantastic. I love weddings. I think marriage is a wonderful thing and believe that such a commitment before friends and family (and God, if you so believe) can create a bond beyond a de facto promise. It's sacred and worth preserving.

Which is why I support Louisa Wall's gay marriage bill.

Since the bill -- which would define marriage legally for the first time, as a commitment between two consenting adults regardless of gender -- there's been a lot of talk about saving marriage from homosexuality.

New Zealand First MP Richard Prosser, for example, says:

"It's about preserving the institution of marriage . . . I've got nothing against gays."

But what's being missed in this debate so far is that purity and preservation are not the same thing; sometimes the best way to ensure something stays precious and relevant is to let it evolve.

The best way to preserve marriage is surely to make it inclusive and to embrace all those who want to honour the love and commitment that stand at the heart of the institution. Let's say that for marriage all you need is love, love, love between two consenting adults and in that way encourage more people to marry, not fewer.

The biggest threat to the institution of marriage, is not allowing more people to marry, but rather poisoning it in a way that makes more people reject the institution. If de facto relationships seem more appealing, and if we create whole new institutions such as civil unions out of fear, surely we undermine the very institution we claim to want to protect.

Starting in the 1960s, marriage began to be seen as too institutional. It was something your mum and dad did, something for fuddy-duddies, something that conformed for conformity's sake, something at odds with the burgeoning generation of free love.

From the 1970s marriage rates in this country began to fall. In 1971, there were 45.5 marriages per 1000 unmarried New Zealanders; 27,200 Kiwis married that year. By 1987 that had dropped to 25/1000.

In May Statistics New Zealand reported marriages in New Zealand were at a historic low in 2011, with just 11.8 marriages per 1000. That saw just 20, 231 marriages.

At the same time, over 8,500 divorces were granted. Stats NZ said 35% of those who married at the peak in 1971 had since divorced by 2010.

Those numbers tell a stark story – we ain't preserving marriage as it stands. Maybe the gay community is the new growth market we need.

Without being flippant, if we want marriage to remain core to the way we build a stable society, encourage long-term loving relationships and nurture families, then we should encourage everyone to embrace it. If we value people sticking together through the joys and hardships, births, mortgages, deaths and long Christmas lunches, then surely we value everyone in a long-term relationship making their vows and getting wed.

I'm not saying that people in de facto relationships or civil unions are any less in love or less committed; but I think that all other things being equal, people who marry are more likely to hang together through the inevitable tough times in life than those who don't. There's something about the communal, public and solemn aspect of marriage that typically – although not exclusively – adds an extra layer of glue.

And that's without even addressing the rights aspect of this debate. Certainly those who say they want to protect the institution have rights, but it's hard to make an argument that gay marriage causes such harm to them or society that their rights should take precedence over those gays who wish to marry.

Having said that, I don't think such an ancient and pivotal institution should be changed without serious consideration. While I am anti-referenda in most cases, I confess some sympathy for the call for a referendum on marriage, not least to give New Zealanders a more direct voice on a tradition that goes beyond and predates parliament and its laws. Marriage as a custom goes back to before recorded history, so does not merely belong to the law-makers, but is a public institution -- and a public morality -- that belongs to the entire community.

At the very least, our democratic representatives should take great care to consult not just their consciences, but their constituents. Parliament rightly controls our laws, but our customs are not its alone to mould.

I'm also wary of the quickness and brutality with which some are judging the critics of this bill. Colin Craig and his allies, I believe, are on the wrong side of this bill and the wrong side of history. But condemning him for saying that genetics are not the sole determinant of sexuality is unfair and unhelpful.

Let me be clear: I have no doubt gay people are born gay. I don't expect those people to repress their sexuality for the sake of religion, custom or anyone else's personal comfort. They should relish their God-given orientation.

But if, for lack of more precise language, we are all somewhere on the sexuality spectrum, isn't it reasonable to assert that some people have an element of choice in their sexuality?

Some won't like to hear this, but take the example of a bi-sexual who happens to fall in love with one particular person and chooses to be faithful to them. Or the victim of child abuse or rape who may reject sex altogether or become more experimental in their sex life as a result of trauma.

I suspect Craig and I would disagree sharply on the question of degree (I think we're talking very small numbers and for most it's just following your God-given orientation). And just because a few people might have more choice over who they marry, doesn't mean all those other gay people shouldn't be able to wed like crazy. But I'm uncomfortable with the mockery of what were clearly some rather carefully chosen words.

In large part the debate has been civil thus far, which is to the credit of those involved. This is where Kiwi she'll-be-right pragmatism can be at its best.

But let's not get sucked into believeing that this is a battle between those who want to preserve marriage and those who want to overhaul it. the truth is that in this case the two can go hand-in-hand.


Comments (15)

by Richard Aston on August 10, 2012
Richard Aston

I am in full agreement with you Tim and I like your straightforward "Let's say that for marriage all you need is love, love, love between two consenting adults and in that way encourage more people to marry, not fewer."

Those that argue for the "institution of marriage" seem to forget how much that has changed , especially for women. Historically this "institution" locked women into powerless roles , was also used to sort out differences between families and tribes , to cement alliances and generally to keep all those troublesome woman in order.

Not a great and noble history but your call to make marriage about love , real love, is a call to lift marriage up where it really belongs.

Maybe those against the idea of same sex marriage ie marriage as love are more attached to the old idea of marriage as control .

Its going to be an interesting debate .

On a side issue I heard that John Key's real motivation in supporting the bill was to give Colin Craig a public issue to claim as his - and therefore give the Conservatives a wider support base ( away from NZ First) of those anti gay voters . An interesting idea , the conservatives currently have bugger all to distinguish them from National and a new right wing partner to replace a dead ACT would certainly be appealing.




by Richard Aston on August 10, 2012
Richard Aston

On another side note - disclaimer I am a registed marriage celebrant amoungst other things - I will be interesting in the final act how they manage Prohibited Marriages. 

Currently 32 of them .


by Andrew Geddis on August 11, 2012
Andrew Geddis

Colin Craig and his allies, I believe, are on the wrong side of this bill and the wrong side of history. But condemning him for saying that genetics are not the sole determinant of sexuality is unfair and unhelpful.

But Craig isn't being condemned just for suggesting that factors other than genetics may be at play in determining a person's sexuality. He's being condemned for saying that being gay is purely a matter of "choice" (he claims he could be gay "if he wanted to"), combined with statements such as "[it is] not intelligent to pretend that homosexual relationships are normal" and that same-sex couples make bad parents. So you're being overly kind to Craig on this issue - or, at the least, you're failing to place his comments in the full context of his views.

If he simply were saying that there is no definitive proof as to what is responsible for human sexuality, then that would hardly be controversial. After all, the American Psychological Association says this on the issue:

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.

And that last sentence is the crucial one. Because even if it is true that (as you say) "we are all somewhere on the sexuality spectrum", and that "some people have an element of choice in their sexuality", to extrapolate from the exception to the rule is bad reasoning.

Or, to put it another way, look at those finalists in the mens 1500m final at the Olympics. Don't they prove that it is simply your choice not to run that distance in less than 3'45"? After all, it's not just genetics that enables them to do it - so it must therefore be a matter of individual choice! With better role models and a society that promotes the normal sport of athletics over abnormal activities such as watching TV or playing rugby, we would all be world class middle distance runners like Nick Willis!!

by Tim Watkin on August 11, 2012
Tim Watkin

I agree with everything you say, Andrew. I was careful to point out that I think those who might make choices about their sexuality are very much the exception rather than the rule; my point was that they do exist however and we need to be careful with blanket statements.

Yes, most people experience no choice, but also yes that it's more complex that some make out.

I hadn't seen Craig's comments that he could choose to be gay; that's barking. The interviews, press releases and articles I'd seen were much more considered. But so much for a nuanced debate!


by Tim Watkin on August 11, 2012
Tim Watkin

The parenting thing is interesting. Polls seem to suggest more New Zealanders are relaxed about gays adopting than they are about gays marriaging. I'd have expected it to have been the other way round, but the way it's been explained to me is that perhaps we simply put the child first in such things. Perhaps others have some theories why that might be.

But again, I think we have to be careful. I have no problem with gay adoption, but let's not pretend that it's not important for kids to have strong role models of both genders, so any gay parents (as with single, widowed etc parents) have to be mindful of that. Of course that's where wider family comes in – and I'm sure the conservatives who oppose this would be the first to stress the importance of grandparents, aunts and uncles, godparents and the like.

by Andrew Geddis on August 11, 2012
Andrew Geddis

I was careful to point out that I think those who might make choices about their sexuality are very much the exception rather than the rule; my point was that they do exist however and we need to be careful with blanket statements.

Sure - a warning against "blanket statements" is probably warranted in regards almost every issue one can think of. But once you recognise that Colin Craig isn't exactly the cautious voice of moderation and balance in this discussion, then I'm wondering who it is that you're targetting here?

Unless, when you say "most people experience no choice, but also ... it's more complex that some make out", the nebulous "some" is meant to be this guy?

by Andrew Geddis on August 11, 2012
Andrew Geddis

And at the risk of being a pedantic bore (yes, yes ... too late, I know), I'd also query your claim that:

Polls seem to suggest more New Zealanders are relaxed about gays adopting than they are about gays marriaging.

There's this June 2012 Herald-DigiPoll that showed 61.2% of people "felt adoption law should be changed to allow all couples, including same-sex couples". And then there's David Farrar's report on a May 2012 Colmar Brunton poll that showed 63% of people supported gay marriage. Seems like a margin of error difference, no?

by stuart munro on August 11, 2012
stuart munro

I'm afraid the whole exercise leaves me cold. Since Labour abandoned it's traditional constituency and their interests, they have taken instead an almost unhealthy interest in rights issues that possess the political virtue, unlike social justice or welfare, of requiring no funding.

This bill won't achieve much. It will be an exercise in self-congratulation for the contemporary moral majority, and perhaps an important minor legal change for a few. One would think with an economy that hasn't even grown technically in four years, a range of volcanic rumblings as widespread as the precursors of the deadly Christchurch quake, public outrage at asset sales, and scandals in the ACC and Education portfolios Labour might have returned to business. But no. Still wedded to 1 in 6, when real statistics suggest it's more like 4-6% tops. Pass the silly bill and get on to something meaningful.

by Chris de Lisle on August 11, 2012
Chris de Lisle

I think "public outrage at asset sales" is an hyperbolic. There's outrage in some quarters, sure, but I think overall it's more like public discomfort at asset sales.

by Tim Watkin on August 12, 2012
Tim Watkin

Andrew, the gay adoption support figures have risen quite rapidly in recent years, but you're right those are neck and neck. My comment was based on conversations with several MPs who have told me polls have adoption ahead of marriage, which surprised me.

There have been all sorts of blanket statements on this issue; it's an easy one for people to just head to their corners and start throwing bombs. I don't think that's helpful when you're talking about changing one of society's most fundamental institutions. You've got to take people with you. As I said, the releases and interviews I'd seen from Craig had some nuance, which was reassuring. The quotes you found did not and weren't.

by Tim Watkin on August 12, 2012
Tim Watkin

Stuart, that's pretty much what Su'a William Sio has been saying, and he has a point.

You could say it continues Labour's commitment to human rights and doesn't hurt it with younger voters (but then John Key's support has probably nullified any gain there). Yet from a pure numbers point of view this bill is small beer; Labour needs more traction on jobs and hip-pockets.

National's played it well, so as to neutralise any gain for Labour. So it's those kicking against it who will benefit most in the polls, I'd imagine.

by stuart munro on August 13, 2012
stuart munro

Yeah, but I think Su'a William Sio's also got a point, if much of his electorate are traditional Christians, shouldn't he represent them? In NZ there's really not going to be strong resistance, but in the islands a rather different culture holds sway. I guess the Labour inner circle are pretty uncomfortable with anyone wanting to actually represent their constituency. But yes, Key dodged this bullet - maybe the proximity of David Farrar helped - old National would certainly have gone down fighting it.

by Kyle Matthews on August 14, 2012
Kyle Matthews

Stuart, Labour can't waste time putting forward bills at this stage that cost the government money as they'll just veto them for messing up their budget. Their bills need to not cost money to actually have a chance to progress.

The idea that an MP should deny human rights to people because the electorate says so, gives me the chills.

by danniel on July 31, 2013

I don't find marriage as important as love. The real catalist in a relationshiop is the feeling, not the paper. Love is what gives you the power to rule, to feel fulfilled and to fight for your relationship. As for marriage... it's just a detail and a personal choice.


by rickk on October 23, 2013

I don't know how important marriage really is in the context of our modern world. I know couples that live for decades together, they are married but they have separate finances. I just believe more in love than marriage. There are some interesting examples about this in Canada's community for everyone over 50. The older we get the more complex our love stories can become.

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