Fifteen years ago I was on a Qantas flight approaching Auckland when the pilot came over the loud speaker to give his final address before landing. As he signed off, he came out with
“Ladies and gentlemen, local time is 3pm. Don’t forget to set your watches forward three hours, and your calendars back 30 years.”
New Zealand jokes, I’ve heard a few. I was a Kiwi joke myself for a while. Despite emigrating to Australia when I was only a few months old, I spoke like quite the little New Zealunder by the time I reached primary school – and my classmates showed no mercy. I was constantly teased for the way I said pool, or dancing, and just generally considered a bit ‘thuck.’ I still get ribbed when people find out I was born in Gisborne. Extracting the urine from Kiwis is a national pastime in Australia, even I do it, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to make those jokes without sounding like a massive one yourself. The haberdasher’s on the main street of Oamaru may still have the same fabric in the window that they did in 1961 (true story, ask my mother) but New Zealand is a lot further ahead than Australia in other areas.
Despite a persistent reputation as the world’s wallflower, New Zealand has been quietly proving itself as the thinking person’s nation. They were the first country to give all women the vote, and the first country to elect an openly transsexual politician to office. They declared themselves nuclear free before any other nation, and they had a female prime minister thirteen years before Australia got there. Last week’s vote to allow amendments to the marriage act, thereby making them the first country in the Asia Pacific region to achieve marriage equality, is only the most recent of a long history of socially progressive decisions. Yet Australia still thinks of New Zealand as a naïve little cousin.
A friend pointed out this week that Australia has appropriated so many of New Zealand’s best exports – Kimbra, Crowded House, Phar Lap, pavlova – but seems unable to adopt even a little of their social awareness. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d happily return Russell Crowe and Rebecca Gibney for just a slice of New Zealand’s commitment to social inclusion.
We’re pretty proud of our laconic, larrikin reputation, but it doesn’t get much done, does it? The footage of New Zealand parliament’s overwhelming vote in favour of marriage equality has been broadcast all over the world, despite it being a week that included the Boston Marathon bombing, and ongoing tensions in Iraq leaving 119 civilians dead. Julia Gillard said she was “unmoved” by New Zealand’s ruling, but she must have been the only one who was. Juxtaposed against the footage of people running injured in Boston or lying on makeshift hospital beds in Iraq, the five minutes of footage of New Zealand politicians embracing openly lesbian MP Louisa Hall as the public gallery broke spontaneously into a version of Poekarekare Ana seemed to transfix the world. To me, that shows the planet is desperate for more acts of love, respect and inclusion and less focus on what divides us all.
If ever we needed proof that our national predilection for apathy is no longer working for us, this is it. We’re busy taking the piss out of Julia Gillard’s jackets, but not her stubborn inability to learn and adapt to the changing world around her. What’s New Zealand doing? Oh, they’re just making genuine changes that improve the lives of their less equal citizens.
It’s time we got serious and started to demand more than wardrobe changes from our politicians. As a nation, we’re in danger of looking like a social backwater. Nothing highlights this better than our current stance on marriage equality. The latest data shows 64% of Australians believe marriage equality should happen; it is ONLY the politicians standing in the way. If we really wanted to do something about it, we could. We actually could. Those of us who believe in equality are no longer the minority, but we’re allowing ourselves to be represented that way. With the exception of a very small group of highly motivated activists, our commitment to changing the existing marriage laws goes as far as clicking yes or no in an online survey, but armchair protesting can only take an issue so far. If we’re not willing to get off our arses and really force the issue en masse it won’t happen.
The overwhelming reaction to marriage equality is that most people are sick of talking about. I’m sick of talking about it too. We need to stop acting like a mother nagging her kid to clean their room, and simply put our collective feet down. Enough is enough. Everyone needs to get involved in this, not just the GLBTIQ community. We need our families and our friends, and the wider community, to step up and show their support. Basically we need that 64% to become highly, and undeniably, visible.
We also need to stop clutching at economic straws, such as what gay marriage and the pink dollar will do for the economy, because it’s detracting from the real wrongdoing. Equality should not be reduced to financial reasons. I should be allowed to marry a woman because I love her, not because a politician can see financial gain in it. For someone to tell me I’ve been granted a basic human right solely on the basis of economy doesn’t make me respected. It makes me a commodity. The “Gay Bridal Registry” may well end up a lucrative by-product of marriage equality, but it shouldn’t be a main reason for doing it. That’s like only getting married for the presents, not the lover.
If we can do that, then as far as I can see there’s nothing stopping us from joining New Zealand. Well, except one. We need something to sing in parliament too, a song that’s Australia’s answer to Poekarekare Ana, because I’m pretty sure the old “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi” thing just isn’t going to cut it.