Australian legislation on same-sex couples helpful, but not enough

Stephen Page [partner, Harrington Family Lawyers]: "Australia, like the USA, has a two party system. On the left side of the fence is the Australian Labor Party and on the right the Liberal/National coalition. Australia is now at an historic point because for the first time in its history, with the election of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, there are Labor governments in every State and Territory and at the Federal level.

Labor policy is to oppose same-sex marriage, but to remove other discrimination against same-sex couples, and to allow for State based relationship registers for same-sex and de facto couples along the Tasmanian model. So far this year both Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory have passed (or are about to pass) legislation for relationship registers. Similarly, the Rudd Government has announced legislation to remove discrimination against same-sex couples in 100 pieces of Federal legislation (except for the Marriage Act, which remains one man and one woman).

The Rudd Government, like the Howard Government before it, indicated that it would veto legislation from the ACT that would allow civil unions, because they "mimic" marriage, which it is argued can only be between a man and a woman. The argument between the two governments got down to the nature of the ceremony! Instead the ACT government has now allowed for its Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages to preside over "non-legal" ceremonies for de facto and same-sex couples, whatever that might mean. It's not what the ACT wants, but what it's stuck with.

The words of the President of the Law Council of Australia Ross Ray QC are apt: "Any step towards eliminating discrimination brings us closer to meeting our international human rights obligations, makes us a fairer, more just community and ought to be greeted with strong approval"; but "as long as the Government remains intent on preserving a special class of state-sanctioned relationship which is closed to same-sex couples, discrimination will persist."

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