Equality is one of the most interesting values and principles of the labour movement, at least in part because we live in the Era of Freedom in so many ways. Individual choices and the right to be left alone are dominant in policy, politics and the media -- though of course not among citizens or in the way people actually live their lives.
I was reminded of the importance of the principle in the somewhat strange debate that sees the occasional Labour person saying that marriage equality isn't an important issue.
Of course it is.
If your social or family circle includes no people from LGBT people (which is unlikely), you are less directly affected. Sure. I get that. But even so, you benefit from a society characterised by a high degree of fairness for everyone. Direct or not, equality in the realm of marraige matters just as it does in the workplace, or anywhere else.
Grant Robertson's weekend post on Red Alert summed up nicely why:
As the excited crowd left the public gallery of Parliament on Wednesday evening, the Speaker had to pause the business of the House. There was a buzz in the air following the vote on Louisa Wall’s marriage equality bill. It was a great night for fairness, equality and courage. The journey New Zealand has been on since the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill in the 80s, through Civil Unions in 00s took another important step in giving all New Zealanders a fair go. We saw some courageous testimonies in the days leading up to the vote and some courageous speeches and voting on the night.
When the crowd had dispersed, and the gallery was deserted, my friend and colleague David Clark got up to introduce his private members bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour in line with Labour’s 2011 manifesto commitment. The crowd should have stayed. He gave a great speech. So did Darien Fenton who followed on from him focusing on the plight of the cleaners in Parliament. Have a look at the speeches, they are thoughtful and heartfelt pleas for a fair wage for all workers. The response from the government speakers was as predictable as it was out of touch.
I would have loved the crowd who so enthusiastically supported marriage equality to have stayed and cheered on a fair go for our lowest paid workers. The issues come from the same well-spring. Its all part of the agenda of a fair go for all New Zealanders and a society where we reject exclusion and unfairness and embrace and value the contribution that all Kiwis can make to our society.
Fairness, equality, is deep in the DNA of New Zealanders. We instinctively knowthat a system stacked against the weak and powerless is wrong. That is why our history is littered with progressive reforms based on the principle of equality: votes for women, votes for Maori, human rights law affecting all, anti-racism campaigns, the Halt All Racist Tours movement, striving for ecological justice, the human rights improvements for LGBT New Zealanders, fair workplace laws, egalitarian social security arrangements, a non-discriminatory state pension.... on and on it goes.
The phrase "equality" summons up some of the worst. That's why most of us, most of the time, talk about fairness. Equality isn't about forcing conformity, or lowest common denominatorism, or turning people into stalinist clones.
It's precisely the opposite.
You cannot have a free society which is disfigured by divides between the insiders and the outsiders.
You cannot have democracy when the voices of a few with power drown out those of the many who don't.
You cannot have economic success for all when working men and women are treated as a cost to be minimised.
You cannot honour the Treaty when the trappings of colonialism still lie all around, powerful and alive and well despite the progress of the past forty years.
You cannot have social justice when you treat those on benefits as second class citizens, somehow less than the rest of us.
You cannot have dignity when some are treated as a little less equal than others when it comes to social rights and customs that are at the heart of our society.
Honouring the diverse circumstances we all have is why the Labour movement believes in equality. Fairness is justice and justice & fairness are all about equality: that is the core of social democratic politics and ideology today. Not just to those living but to those who are yet to come (which is why environmental stewardship is becoming more pronounced in social democratic and Labour politics).
So I have a piece of advice to my friends in the Labour movement who try to charactise the Living Wage campaign, or Marriage Equality, as sideshows. (I've heard both, to my surprise.)
They aren't. Relate them back to our core beliefs. If you are in an audience skeptical about one aspect of this journey we are all on, towards fairness & equality, then tell another part of the story.
For those who aren't interested in marriage equality, relate the issue back to core issues of fairness at work.
For those who can't get their heads around why a strong trade union movement and fair industrial laws are good for us all, relate it back to suffrage or marriage equality, or the universal pension.
These things are all related. The more clearly we link them together the more likely it is our message can cut through, and the stronger our movement becomes. The more voters will get the message that equality affects everyone and is worthy of the support of all, regardless of their circumstances.
Let's not play divide and rule. Let's not engage in reverse wedge politics against ourselves.
Instead, let's celebrate the founding and distinctive principle that motivates our movement, and that is more relevant to New Zealand's future prospects than it has been for many years.