Crossing Points: Louisa Wall, Towards Social Justice

Louisa Wall
New Zealand Member of Parliament for Manurewa; proposer of the NZ Same-Sex Marriage Bill; represented New Zealand in both netball and rugby union

Aotearoa/New Zealand is one of almost 90 per cent of countries around the world that at various times have been invaded by the British (according to a recent book). The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman ‘discovered’ New Zealand in 1642, and through the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi the country was claimed by the British in the name of QueenVictoria. Today New Zealand is one of 53 Commonwealth countries, and one of the 193 member states of the United Nations.

New Zealand’s legal system derives from ‘Mother England’, and our values and practices – as a young nation defining itself in a turbulent world – should be seen in that context. In addition, and despite the theoretical separation of church and state, the culture imposed on New Zealand by Britain was heavily informed by traditional Christian principles – some of them archaic and in need of reform.

New Zealand began its journey of embracing same sex marriage equality in 1986 when we decriminalised sexual relations between men aged 16 and over. No longer would men having consensual sex with each other be liable to prosecution and a term of imprisonment. By contrast the United Kingdom Sexual Offences Act of 1967 only decriminalised homosexual acts in private between men, and insisted that both parties had to have attained the age of 21. In NZ, as in the UK, sex between women was not illegal, but many lesbians suffered the same social discrimination as gay men, and were staunch supporters of the homosexual law reform movement.

The campaign for homosexual law reform gained support beyond the gay community and included wider issues of human rights, freedom from discrimination, and the pursuit of social justice.

New Zealand homosexual law reform should be seen in the context of the country’s role in international human rights. The New Zealand delegation, led by Prime Minister Peter Fraser, was formally involved in the establishment of the United Nations. In 1944, when the United Nations Charter – the organisation’s founding document – was being developed, New Zealand pushed for a stronger focus on human rights. In 1948 the country again played an important and effective role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is not surprising, given that New Zealand led the world in enabling women to have the right to vote. That happened in 1893; it took the UK another 25 years.

We think of these human rights journeys as linear: progress from one human rights enlightenment to another, in the process eliminating societal divisions exacerbated by colonisation, sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia and anti-migrant and anti-refugee campaigns.

Today it seems as if in many parts of the world that progress is neither linear nor inevitable. The journey is, rather, regressive, and belies a body politic characterised by self-interest and power at all costs.

This ‘power at all costs’ mentality has seen the propaganda of White supremacy — the view that White people are racially superior — and neo-Nazism, explode. A 2016 report from George Washington University’s Program on Extremism found that White nationalist

organisations have seen their follower numbers on Twitter grow by more than 600 per cent since 2012. The Anti-Defamation League in the United States has reported a 182 per cent increase in activity of these groups in the year from 2017.

But there is a countervailing trend – a collective commitment to global peace and security through the establishment of a global community, fostering cooperation between  nations in order to solve economic, social, cultural and international humanitarian crises.

New Zealand has a long and proud history of implementing laws that address issues of fundamental human rights. Our approach has been to enter into dialogue with our citizens and to develop consensus across the political spectrum for such law reform.

Internationally, we fundamentally believe in and implement the rule of law and international treaties as a display of our commitment to the United 

Nations (UN) and its Charter. The UN Charter committed us:

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in a century has brought untold sorrow to mankind;
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small;
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained; and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

New Zealand has continually challenged itself to ensure that everyone is equal under the law. Within the context of marriage equality we determined that the Church can discriminate (as guaranteed by our Bill of Rights commitment to freedom of religion), but the State should not and cannot. The Church and State have, at different times, refused to marry people who have been divorced, refused to marry people of different faiths, and refused to marry people of different races. Those restrictions have changed, because they were not fair and just.

Women were not able to be guardians of their children upon a divorce or separation – a law was needed to change that. For women to own property required law changes as recently as 1884. A woman was able to obtain a divorce from her husband only if there was another reason alongside adultery, such as extreme cruelty, desertion, or incest; while a man could obtain a divorce immediately on the basis of his wife’s adultery. Our history is peppered with examples of discriminatory, unequal and unfair laws. Marriage equality at its core was essentially about ensuring that the law did not exclude two people from obtaining a marriage licence because of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Today there is greater mobility between nations, and a greater opportunity for interaction and shared experiences. In order to meet our moral and ethical obligations as parliamentarians we need to prioritise our international obligations and ensure that the human rights set in place so many years ago are continually progressed.

Human rights can and must underpin the actions we take as a nation both internally and externally. The realisation of fundamental human rights and responsibilities means we are all free to be who we are. And in being embraced to be who we are, then are we critical enough and compassionate enough to fulfil our human rights responsibilities to modify any practices that are proven to harm any other human being?

Worldwide peace and security depend on the decisions and actions of individuals. Those individual actions are the starting point for collective actions – by families, communities and nations – and ultimately for global action from organisations like the Commonwealth and the United Nations.