On Wednesday, hundreds gathered outside the New Zealand parliament building in the hope of getting a place in the public gallery to hear the verdict on a bill that would amend the 1955 Marriage Act.
Upon hearing the news that the bill had passed 77-44, the throng applauded, cheered and even sang a Maori song. Expected to take effect in August, the bill will allow same-sex couples to marry, making New Zealand the 13th country in the world and the first in the Asia-Pacific region to do so. A “must-watch” video of a speech by a New Zealand MP Maurice Williamson can be seen here.
"Two-thirds of parliament have endorsed marriage equality," said Louisa Wall, a gay opposition Labour party MP who was responsible for the bill. "It shows that we are building on our human rights as a country."
But the bill did not pass without a fight. “The bill was essentially passed due to the strong same-sex marriage lobby, which has a strong ally in the media,” Bob McCoskrie, a representative of New Zealand family issues watchdog group Family First, told The Diplomat.
He continued, “Rather than listening to public debate, I think politicians became tired of hearing from the lobby and eventually gave in. We believe we won the public debate, as seen in the fact that the nation is actually divided roughly in half over the issue.”
New Zealand is the most recent in a series of countries to give the stamp of approval for same-sex couples keen to tie the knot. Uruguay did the same just last week, joining the likes of Denmark, Canada, Spain, some U.S. states and Sweden. The Netherlands was the leader of the pack, legalizing same-sex marriage in 2000. Many expect France and the UK to be the next nations to sign similar bills.
Of note, New Zealand’s neighbor has no plans of budging on its marriage laws. Last September, a similar bill was shot down in Australian parliament 98-42. Far from softening Aussie officialdom’s stance on a similar bill, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard reiterated her stance.
“On same-sex marriage, marriage equality, I doubt we're going to end up agreeing, sorry,” Gillard said at a community forum on Wednesday. "But what we have done as a political party is we've decided that people can exercise their own views, own conscience, when this matter comes before the parliament, which it recently did and I'm sure it will again in the future."
Others have echoed this stance in New Zealand as well. “Achieving equality doesn’t require us to permanently change a historical institution,” McCoskrie said. “In 2005, more than 150 pieces of legislation were changed to give legal rights and recognition to same sex couples. That was sufficient to do away with discrimination. By passing this law, we’ve weakened the institution of marriage. We’ve undermined it.”
At present, same-sex civil unions are allowed in five Australian states. While those opposed to gay marriage hold the belief that civil unions go far enough to address the issue, thousands of same-sex couples still yearn for the real thing. According to Rodney Croome, the national director of Australian Marriage Equality, up to 1,000 Australian same-sex couples expressed their willingness to make the short trip across the Tasman Sea to get hitched – a short trip for the couples and an unlikely revenue source for New Zealand.
“Most Australian same-sex partners would prefer to marry the person they love in the country they love but, now that marriage equality is only three hours away, there will be a flood of couples flying to New Zealand to tie the knot and spend their money,” Croome said.
For Australia, Croome added, "Growing international pressure takes it up a notch.” In light of the fact that conservative New Zealand Prime Minister John Key allowed for a conscience vote, "It sends a direct message that this is an issue conservatives can support. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a push for a conscience vote before the election," Croome said.
In Australia, many gay marriage activists have even taken to the streets, chalking the rainbow symbol in public spaces to make their presence known. The street artists were spurred on by the removal of a rainbow-painted pedestrian crossing on Oxford Street in the heart of Sydney’s gay district which had been painted for the city’s annual Mardi Gras parade.
The battle that still raging in Australia may have been won by same-sex marriage activists yesterday in New Zealand, but opposition still exists. And it is hard to trust stereotypes about who opposes the issue.
“Despite the way this issue has been portrayed in the media, not all who oppose this bill are Christians,” McCoskrie said. “We have Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and non-religious people affiliated with us (Family First). We’re open to anyone. Claiming that this is only opposed by Christians has been the media’s way of diminishing our real argument.”
McCoskrie sums up the opposition’s argument as follows: “There are three key reasons for opposition. One, it was unnecessary to completely change a time-honored institution. Two, it touches on issues of freedom of conscience for churches who may feel pressured to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies. And three, if this has come to pass we have to wonder what’s next.”
He added, “Now that same-sex marriage has been legalized there is a possibility that polygamy and group marriage could be put on the table. It’s the logical consequence of what’s happened.”