Max Johns - South Island flour market researcher, No fixed abode

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Describe in your own words

I hate admitting it, but we owe Winston one. Now that “public domain” has been dropped from our shiny new foreshore and seabed legislation, he can take a bow. For those who’ve had their heads buried in the (somewhat contentious) sand over recent months, “public domain” was due to replace the Crown ownership that Labour wanted to ensure at our nation’s edges. It was designed to grant all New Zealanders access to beaches, but the difference between this and Crown ownership is minimal. The benefit of “public domain” was that this less colonial-sounding phrase would hopefully placate opposition to the policy. But it was either (a) a pseudonym for Crown ownership, or (b) entirely meaningless. And legislation, believe it or not, is never meaningless. This was a political dodge developed to put Turiana and co. off the scent – Look! It’s something so fantastic it’s got a new name! Remember when they replaced Mt. Cook with Aoraki, but it was the same mountain all along?

So the Government got its Crown ownership wish, with the added benefit of having Winston to blame. What we need now is for another semantic bun-fight to be settled, but this isn’t one NZ First is likely to jump at. What’s the difference between marriage and civil union? It seems that 2004 is the year we all suddenly realise that gay people form lasting bonds between one another. Welcome, finally, to a new dawn. Now what?

Marriage, of course, originated as a religious ceremony way back before anyone, even the Pope, can remember. These days, after the ceremony, the two parties swap signatures and suddenly what’s his is hers, the hierarchy of next-of-kins gets a quick shuffle, and so on and so forth. But all anyone really cares about by then is the cake. In fact, if you live together for too long, you miss out on cake and go directly to shared property. And you thought it was only drunk pop stars with fading celebrity that married by accident. If God’s not your cup of tea, of course, you can skip the bells and priest and just sign up for the rights and responsibilities. Thanks for dropping by the office, once the ink’s dry you may kiss the owner of half your stuff. What’s optional is marrying in the eyes of the Lord - it’s the eyes of the state that you have to be seen by.

Marriage, as far as the state goes, is little more than the signing of a contract and re-jigging of a few rights and responsibilities. The word may have other connotations, but they have nothing to do with law, and result from its religious origins. Now, it’s entirely fine when churches decide who is and is not allowed to be a part of their club. I never liked it when Mum told me to play with people that I didn’t like, either. But what isn’t fine is Government denying people rights that others can access at will – or have thrust upon them after a few years’ cohabitation – unless you’ve got a good reason. There’s no traction in the “real marriages beget children” argument, nor in some sort of flighty “sanctity of marriage” complaint. And “eww, you kiss other boys” doesn’t quite cut it either. So it’s pretty tough to sensibly deny gay people these rights. Recognising that, someone came up with the idea of civil unions, a sort of marriage-lite whereby the legal side of things gets cleared up and you’re allowed to act all married and stuff, just so long as you don’t go around telling anyone that you’re married. Hey presto #1: Gays still can’t marry – the sadly large stupid bigot proportion of the population is happy. Hey presto #2: We’ve all got the same rights, no-one can complain about discrimination, so the gay population should also be happy, right? Newsflash: this is as stupid as trying to replace Crown ownership with public domain. Allowing people to act as if they’re married and giving them the rights of a married couple makes them the equivalent of a married couple, no matter what words you use. Marriages and civil unions are, effectively, one and same. Just like the foreshore and seabed mess, the only benefit in using the new phrase is political.

So right now gay couples can gather crowds of friends, make promises to each other, swap jewellery, do whatever they want except sign up for marriage. Civil unions are a proposed fix, designed to not offend anyone overly religious, old, or stupid. This is a democracy after all, and religious, old and stupid votes are plentiful and predictable. But civil unions would be a guarantee of all the stuff marriage would guarantee, minus a contentious word. Just like “public domain” takes the “Crown” out of “Crown ownership”, this takes the “marriage” out of “gay marriage”. Pretending there’s a material difference is pointless. It’s time for someone to seize the legislation and get the simple words into it, regardless of PC bollocks. But with the old, stupid vote to be lost, this probably isn’t one for Winston.