Gay law reform: a tactics masterclass

From The House , 7:30 am on 25 July 2021

It is 35 years since New Zealand legalised consensual gay sex.

It seems like a simple thing now (especially given the relative ease of more recent laws), but the campaign to pass the Homosexual Law Reform Bill (HLRB) was nasty, brutish and long.

At this distance only a single one of the MPs (Trevor Mallard) who were present at the time is still in Parliament. A few others are recent departures like Winston Peters and Nick Smith (opposed) and Annette King (in favour). Many are already dead.

Petazae Thoms closes his eyes for a moment's reflection before helping raise an LGBTQI flag in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act.

Petazae Thoms takes a moment to reflect before helping raise an LGBTQI flag in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act. Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Parliament commemorated the event in early July with a dawn flag raising event and a panel discussion with key players, particularly Fran Wilde (who fronted the bill) and Trevor Mallard who was her ‘numbers man’ (keeping track of MP support to make sure enough MPs were present for votes).

The passing of the HLRB legislation is now in New Zealand’s history curriculum, which Fran Wilde says makes her feel rather old. But despite that she says the  strategies they used are often still relevant. 

“Thirty five years does seem like a long time ago, but actually there is still more to do. So, we haven’t finished yet.” 

To this end both Fran Wilde and Trevor Mallard shared tactics and stories that helped them survive a brutal parliamentary and political campaign.

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Fran Wilde & Trevor Mallard

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Fran Wilde & Trevor Mallard Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

A lacking groundswell

As context, Trevor Mallard points out that this law change did not come from a huge groundswell of public opinion forcing politicians to listen. Quite the opposite. A minority of New Zealanders were in favour of legalisation, making the campaign that much harder. 

“For people involved, it was hard. It was awful politics. Fran might have built communities around the country who were supportive, [but] I don’t think we ever got above 32% support in the polls, for the passing of the Bill. This was a Bill that was, at the time, not wanted by the majority of New Zealanders.”  

Support wasn’t much stronger within Parliament. 

Members’ bills at that time were typically given a successful first reading vote before “disappearing forever in a select committee”, says Fran Wilde. So while successful the first reading vote was no indication of real support.

At the time of the first reading the team could only find 19 MPs whose votes were assured through to the third reading - 19 MPs from a total of 95 was barely a fifth of the House. 

For a majority win they would eventually require 48 to put their support on record.

Educating voters 

To increase MP support they aimed at their communities. 

Pre-MMP elections were held under the ‘first past the post’ electoral system and the BIll’s opponents were telling MPs that they would lose their seats if they supported legalisation. In many electorates that was a reasonable claim. 

“This was about changing public opinion. What we had was a public that had been brought up to think about gay men in particular (but also lesbians), as perverted child molesters - that was the stereotype a lot of New Zealanders had.” - Fran Wilde

It wasn’t a scattergun approach, it was aimed primarily at the public in those electorates which had MPs that might be able to be convinced.

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Fran Wilde & Trevor Mallard

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Fran Wilde & Trevor Mallard Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

A targeted local campaign…

“So this was a public education campaign. We needed the public in certain electorates to understand what this huge human rights black hole meant for New Zealand, and to give their Members of Parliament permission to vote for it,” says Fran Wilde.

To achieve that they enlisted a wide coalition of groups beginning with the core gay rights groups and adding “other allies” such as amenable religious, education and health groups.

This was all focused on those ‘marginal’ electorates with MPs able to be convinced.

“We put together groups and work programmes in the electorates of MPs we were targeting. We needed the opinion leaders in those electorates to say to those MPs ‘actually, it’s okay for you to vote for this bill, actually, we want you to.”

Trevor Mallard was one MP from a seat where support could easily cost him his job. 

“We were all told that we were not only going to go to hell, but we would lose our seats as well.” 

…and a national one  

That local strategy was paired with a national one to counter the very vocal and public opposition campaign. 

“There was a massive media campaign; radio, print media, television when we could. Speeches, meetings, rallies - I didn’t go to rallies because it was thought unsafe - generally getting out as much as we could.”

While the media campaign was large Fran Wilde is relieved it didn’t include one modern medium - social media. 

“There was no social media and I say ‘hallelujah’ to that. Don’t get me going on social media. It’s such a destructive thing I think now particularly for young people, and we did not have to contend with social media which made it much easier actually.”

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Fran Wilde & Trevor Mallard

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Fran Wilde & Trevor Mallard Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Visibility and the ‘real heroes’

“The idea was to change the stereotype view of gay men. What we needed was visibility. The real heroes of this campaign were the gay men who came out during the campaign,” says Fran Wilde.

“They were criminals. Many of them would have been in danger of losing their jobs, and losing their friends, and a whole lot of other sanctions. They actually put their personal safety on the line to come out.”    

Having the whip hand 

Fran Wilde laughs as she says that she was given a huge assist when she was made one of Labour’s whips after the 1984 election, “to keep me out of cabinet”.

Being in cabinet would have precluded her from sponsoring a member’s bill. 

Being a whip gave her offices from which to base the campaign. It also gave her access to the information in the Leave Book, i.e. which MPs were planning to be absent from Parliament and when. 

This was incredibly useful for ensuring they had the numbers required when the Bill came up on Member’s Days. 

In the days before MMP, absent MPs couldn’t vote but the parties ran a co-operative system of ‘pairing’ so equal numbers of government and opposition MPs could be absent at the same time. 

This mechanism sought to allow absence without causing voting outcomes against the expected majority - but it didn’t take account of the mixed voting support for a conscience issue. 

So knowing exactly which MPs would be absent when was crucial to making sure the supporters had enough votes in the House for any given vote.

“So every time the Bill was in the House, which was every Wednesday for a long, long time, we needed to make sure all our votes were there, which was exhausting frankly.” - Fran Wilde. 

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Fran Wilde & Trevor Mallard

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Fran Wilde & Trevor Mallard Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

An opposition ‘whip’

The Bill’s support was mostly from among Labour Party MPs but there was also support from among the National Party’s ranks. (note: 46 of the 49 votes for the third and final reading were from Labour MPs, three were from National MPs. The two Social Credit MPs voted against it.) 

The MPs running the campaign were Labour MPs but they didn’t take the opposition for granted.

National’s Katherine O’Regan was also a new MP (having replaced Marilyn Waring) and became the campaign’s liaison into the National Party.

Fran Wilde says “I particularly want to acknowledge Katherine O’Regan who did a lot of work.”

Katherine O’Regan also later championed the human rights portion of the HLRB, defeated in 1986 - the human rights element. 

Its success was less than a decade later and yet, Trevor Mallard says, “it sailed through the Parliament when Katherine O’Regan promoted it.” Attitudes had already shifted markedly.

Organising the opposition

The whips’ office access to leave applications also helped organise a campaign to absent opposition MPs from Parliament and ensure the planned absence of their own supporters didn’t create an accidental minority.

They did this by arranging for MPs opposed to the Bill to be invited to speak in far flung regions. 

“We organised for the ‘anties’ to be invited to obscure places in New Zealand every Wednesday. I’m not sure whether they realised what was going on… I can say that now, a long time has passed.”

This unofficial version of their pairs system allowed the campaign supporting MPs to also get the occasional day off (as ‘pairs’ for those invited ‘anties’). 

Organising the support

Getting a controversial bill across the line is not a one-woman job. 

Inside Parliament Fran Wilde had a team running the campaign. She notes Trevor Mallard and Ruth Dyson and Michael Cullen as particularly central, with huge support from Judy Keall, Katherine O’Regan and many others. There were also large groups of non-MPs helping out around the country. 

Former accountant Trevor Mallard was the campaign’s ‘numbers man’. 

“We didn’t have proper computers or spread sheets in those days, we had ‘division lists’ [likely vote counts] and coloured felt-tip pens. And we had series and series and series of these on the various issues.

“Fran has never been good at numbers. She was a very optimistic person, and at times we did need to be absolutely realistic to makes sure we were going to get the numbers.”

On an even more practical level Ruth Dyson who wasn’t yet then an MP went the extra mile says Trevor Mallard. 

“Ruth not only helped run the campaign, she sort of ran Fran’s house… looked after the kids, and made sure there was food, and all that sort of stuff, to free Fran up to do the work, because Fran was the person who could convince people.”   

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Fran Wilde & Trevor Mallard

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Fran Wilde & Trevor Mallard Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

The numbers - picking battles while maintaining a coalition 

Trevor Mallard notes that “it became obvious quite early that the Human Rights part of the Bill would not succeed. …what that meant was that there was nothing in there which was of any assistance to the lesbian community at all. 

“So, after it was like goodwill on the part of the lesbian community that it helped keep the coalition going together. And I think that was something which was incredibly appreciated, and not that straight forward.”

Allowing opposition and accepting accidental support

A major area of contention was the age of consent that would apply to males. For hetero couples consent was set at age 16, and the HLRB had also set that as the age for gay men, for equality. 

Some supportive MPs wanted the age raised (and there were attempted amendments that sought to raise the age of consent during the committee stage), but the gay community was against this. 

Trevor Mallard notes that some of those voting for an age rise “deeply believed in it, and others saw it as a cover. Within the 18 and 20 voters there were people who really wanted it to go through at 16, but felt like this could be something that they could do to give a signal [to their communities] that they weren’t quite as radical.”

Interestingly, that action wasn’t always against the campaign’s wishes. 

“Several of them did it with our permission” says Trevor Mallard. “We worked it through with them and we knew we had the numbers, and so we said ‘in the interests of getting the legislation through overall in a package and keeping people in good shape, it was OK’ to do that - in the committee stages.”

In the end the MPs who were opposed to the Bill voted down amendments to raise the age, because as Fran Wilde notes “they thought that nobody in their right mind would vote for a third reading for the Bill with the age of consent at 16.”

Counter-oppo research

A key focus of the opposition campaign was a nationwide petition against the Bill.  

The petition was delivered to Parliament with great fanfare and proclaimed the largest ever with around 835,000 signatures.   

Fran Wilde says Trevor Mallard “led a group of people who went through every single page”, checking the signatures, a mammoth undertaking.

“We found many of them were just fraudulent. Mickey Mouse signed many times and that of course was people who had been forced to sign in a group and they didn’t want to but they just signed any old name.” 

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Fran Wilde & Trevor Mallard

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Fran Wilde & Trevor Mallard Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Extra votes up your sleeve 

By the time they got to the third reading the team was sure they had the numbers to be successful but surprisingly, actually had reserve options just in case there was a surprise. 

Trevor Mallard was one of the ‘ayes lobby tellers’ (vote counters) on the night.

“We also had two National MPs whose electorates were strongly opposed to it, but who had family members (brothers, I think in both cases), who were gay. 

“And they indicated that they were not prepared to see the legislation fail. They went to the end of the [Ayes] lobby and waited for a signal that the legislation was going to pass, and then went and voted against it.”

In the end it passed with a majority of five votes (you can see the vote count at the bottom of the article).

A tipping point

Asked about the colonial context of the law change, Fran Wilde says she believes it had impacts far beyond the immediate ones.

“There were huge issues then about things like rape in marriage, domestic violence, etcetera. And the same people who opposed gay law reform also opposed all of those changes… 

“I always (looking back on it), think our society was going to go one way or the other, and thank God we went this way, because frankly that opened the way for a lot of other things, but also it meant some things we’d already achieved were not pushed back… 

“The fundamentalist Christian lobby who were quite strong in the case of the gay law reform bill, were funded from the US, they had speakers over here and it was a big campaign. [Had they been successful] they would have just moved in a big wave across a whole lot of other issues as well and that would have set New Zealand society back hugely.”  

Ways forward

“We are far from being instinctively tolerant, I think, in a lot of areas. …I particularly think we have to do something more organised… in schools. I think kids are still being picked on and bullied and it’s really tough for them.”

Related Media

  • The audio at the top of the page is The House's edit of highlights from the event. If you would like to hear the full event the audio is available at NZPride here.  
  • Parliament also has an excellent series of related Rainbow Interviews in their special features videos here.    
Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Flag Raising

Homosexual Law Reform 35th Anniversary Flag Raising Photo: ©VNP

The Hansard Vote Count:  9 July, 1986

Ayes 49

Anderton ; Austin , M. E .; Bassett ; Batchelor ; Boorman ; Burke ; Butcher ;Caygill ; Clark ; Cullen ; de Cleene ; Dillon ; Douglas ; Dunne ; Elder ; Fraser ; Gair ; Gerbic; Goff ; Gregory ; Hercus ; Hunt ; Isbey ; Jeffries ; Keall ; King ; Lange ; McLean ; Marshall ,C. R .; Matthewson ; Maxwell , R. K .; Moore ; Moyle ; Neilson ; Northey ; O'Flynn ;O'Regan ; Palmer ; Prebble ; Scott ; Shields ; Shirley ; Sutton , J. R .; Sutton , W. D .;Tizard ; Wetere ; Wilde .

Tellers : Mallard ; Woollaston .

Noes 44

Angus ; Austin , H. N .; Austin , W. R .; Banks ; Birch ; Bolger ; Burdon ; Colman ;Cooper ; Cox ; East ; Falloon ; Friedlander , Gerard ; Graham ; Gray ; Jones ; Kidd ; Knapp; Luxton ; McClay ; McKinnon ; McTigue ; Marshall , D. W. A .; Maxwell , R. F. H .; Morrison; Muldoon ; Peters ; Richardson ; Rodger ; Smith ; Storey ; Talbot ; Tapsell ; Terris ;Tirikatene - Sullivan ; Townshend ; Upton ; Wallbank ; Wellington ; Young , T. J .; Young ,V. S.

Tellers : Braybrooke ; Lee .

Majority for : 5

Bill read a third time .