Same-sex couples equal already

Redefining marriage is unnecessary, writes former MP Gordon Copeland.

The debate on same-sex marriage lacks context, because its promoters have failed to take into account the equal rights already established in New Zealand law for same-sex couples.

Everyone remembers the passing of the Civil Unions Act in late 2004 because of the publicity it generated. However, the Civil Unions Act was followed by a companion Relationships (Statutory References) Act in early 2005 - the Relationships Act. It was passed by Parliament without fanfare and little mention in the media. As a result, it has been missing from this debate because its purpose and legal effects are largely unknown to New Zealanders. Yet it is of crucial importance.

So what did the Relationships Act do? It amended over 150 Acts of Parliament to add, after every reference to ''marriage'', the words ''civil union and de facto'' so that there would be a complete and perfect legal equality between marriage, civil unions and heterosexual or homosexual de facto relationships. It means that all couples, in any of these relationships, have exactly the same rights and entitlements under New Zealand law, with the possible exception of the adoption law. Therefore, nothing is to be gained by redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, since equal rights have already been granted to those couples. That battle was fought and won in 2005!

In 1893, New Zealand was the first nation in the world to grant women the vote, but we did not do that by redefining men to include women, but rather by recognising the equality of women. In the same way, the Relationships Act does not alter the definition of marriage but, rather, recognises the equality of same-sex unions, be they civil union or de facto, at law. The mantra of ''marriage equality'' needs to be viewed against that background.

In my view, that mantra does not stand up to scrutiny because all of us can surely agree that a marriage between a man and a woman is biologically different from a union between two women or two men. Just as women and men are different, so those relationships are different (de facto relationships are different again because they exist in fact but involve couples who are not married or in civil unions). Let us not forget that the law in New Zealand does permit homosexuals to marry, and some have.

Recognition of the reality that women and men are biologically different does not constitute discrimination, inequality or a denial of rights. We separate women and men for sport and boys and girls for sport and education. Many secondary schools, for example, are single sex, but that does not mean that the boys are not the equal of the girls or vice versa. Our laws against discrimination are founded on the principle of ''different but equal''.

Consequently, although it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of difference in gender, nationality, race, religion, marital status and so on in employment, housing, voting and the like, the law also recognises difference in many ways. Indeed, in our language we always, without exception, give different names to things that are different because life would become very confusing if a rake was called a spade or vice versa!

Marriage is too important to the stability of our society and the raising of children to risk such a radical change to its traditional definition without sound reason and, in my view, no such reason has been advanced. Marriage can result in lifelong loving relationships between the spouses. It remains the best and most stable environment in which to raise children. It has stood the test of time and is common to all cultures and nations.

Like democracy, it is not perfect, but it is better than all the other models. It would be greatly strengthened if governments invested in the delivery of pre-marriage preparation and post-wedding marriage enrichment programmes by non-government organisations, because marriage underpins a successful society, while the root cause of much poverty and delinquency arises from casual, unstable or broken relationships. The Relationships Act created ''relationships equality'' and nothing more is necessary or desirable. The redefinition of marriage Bill should not proceed.

- Gordon Copeland is a former member of Parliament who was in the House in 2004-05 when the Civil Unions and Relationships (Statutory References) Acts were passed. He was a United Future party list MP from 2002 until he resigned from the party in 2007.