New Zealand gets ahead again

So New Zealand continues its record of being ahead of Australia in reform politics, voting last night to legalise same-sex marriage: the 13th country worldwide to do so, but the first in our region.

The vote is being reported as a good-news story, with everyone getting some of the credit. And fair enough too: it was a Labour MP, Louisa Wall, who presented the bill, but prime minister John Key, of the centre-right National Party, didn’t just allow a free vote, he supported it himself and clearly gave political cover for many of his MPs to do so as well. The final vote, 77 to 44, wasn’t even close.

But at the risk of being seen as a party-pooper, it’s worth pointing out that partisan politics is a more important factor than you would guess from reading the newspapers. In fact, if the bill had been treated the way most legislative measures are, it would have been defeated.

None of the reports that I can find give the actual voting breakdown by party, so I had to work it out myself.* Here it is:

For Against
National 27 32
Labour 30 4
Greens 14 0
NZ First 0 7
Others 6 1
Total 77 44


Despite Key’s support, the majority of Nationals opposed the bill. In a regular vote, they would have swung the whole party against it, and with New Zealand First’s opposition as well it would have gone down. Key is in the same position as British prime minister David Cameron, who also failed to win majority support in his own party – although it must be said there seems to be less bitterness about the issue in New Zealand.

For all the apparent consensus, same-sex marriage remains a divisive political issue. There has been a major shift within the parties of the centre-right, but it does not yet amount to majority support. The numbers to get the change through have to come mostly from the centre-left, even in countries governed by their opponents.

So where does this leave Australia – other than just “behind”? Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott both profess themselves unmoved by the New Zealand development, and there is no real sign that the religious right’s control of both major parties has been eroded. No doubt Labor’s view will change if it goes into opposition, but the swing in opinion would probably be cancelled out by the diminished number of MPs it would have.

Change here will happen only when the Liberals not only allow a conscience vote but demonstrate from the top, as Cameron and Key both did, that supporting equality is within the party mainstream. Stranger things have happened, but my guess is that it’s still some time away.

* For anyone who wants to check the calculation, I relied on the NZ parliament’s list of party affiliations, the division list for the second reading vote and the New Zealand Herald’s report on the two MPs who switched sides (one each way) between then and the third reading.


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