Gay 'justice' suits pragmatic pollies

Lesbian Romance, Flickr image by Made UndergroundGay and lesbian equality is one of those touchstone issues against which to measure a politician's moderate credentials. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in last year's election campaign, promised to remove all discrimination concerning same-sex couples in 58 pieces of legislation since grown to 100.

Dr Brendan Nelson, in declaring the leadership of the Liberal party open to challenge, combined a tougher stance on climate change with a commitment to equality for same-sex couples in his bid to elicit votes.

Although he failed to retain his leadership of the Liberal Party, Nelson's commitment gave new leader Malcolm Turnbull the chance to renew his pledge to remove discrimination against same-sex couples. On a recent ABC1 Q&A, Turnbull reasserted that he is opposed to discrimination on the basis of sexuality.

His consistent opposition to such discrimination is not totally altruistic. He represents the cosmopolitan inner-Sydney seat of Wentworth, which has one of Australia's largest gay and lesbian populations. In  September 2007, he wrote to his constituents: 'I have sought to address and overcome this (same-sex) discrimination. I pledge to continue to fight until justice is done.' His vote in the 2007 election increased by 1.34 per cent.

The bills introduced so far by the Rudd Government to remove this discrimination are dry. The human rights boundaries here are legal and economic, covering the payments and benefits you often take for granted until you realise you are not eligible for them. They do not attempt any redefinitions of marriage, which, from Turnbull as much as anyone else, has been given 'a special status' as an irrefutable union between a man and a woman.

July's Same-Sex Relationship (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws — Superannuation) Bill 2008 was followed in September by the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws — General Law Reform) Bill 2008. This is based on the recommendations of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's 2007 report, Same-Sex: Same Entitlements.

The bill reforms 68 pieces of legislation to give same-sex couples and their children new entitlements and benefits in federal laws relating, for example, to taxation, Medicare, social security, veterans and defence benefits, and migration.

There has also been a bill that will give same-sex couples the right to object to giving evidence against each other and another to equalise access to the Family Court for property-related matters (previously same-sex couples had to use their state's Supreme Court) as well as children-related matters during a relationship breakdown.

The Coalition, using its Senate majority, has referred the bills to Senate inquires. Dr Nelson and members of the Coalition right were unhappy with the category 'couple relationships', which covers married couples as well as opposite-sex and same-sex de facto couples. Instead, they want the bill to include interdependent couples as well. The Rudd Government, however, does not. It has become a major sticking point.

Interdependent was a politically acceptable name for a new visa category in the late 1980s when immigration regulations tightened and same-sex couples had to be incorporated into the formal immigration process. The interdependent visa nowadays is grouped within the partner visa, which includes spouses, prospective and de facto applications.

It is a term that can also be used to describe close friends or siblings who 'live together; and one or each of them provides the other with financial support; and ... with domestic support and personal care'. The gay and lesbian community argues that the term characterises same-sex couples wrongly as companions.

Most states either register same-sex couples or recognise cohabiting same-sex couples as de facto partners. This helps name, recognise and prove relationships. Even Graeme Innes, the Australian Human Rights Commissioner has said that criteria for proving an interdependent relationship are 'harder to satisfy' than those for a de facto relationship.

It also opens up financial quandaries such as the one quoted by the Coalition, of two elderly sisters each on a single pension earning less if classified as an interdependent couple. This, of course, will apply to same-sex couples as well when classified as a couple of any sort, but equality overrides any financial loss, and economic justice will mean becoming familiar with different approaches to tax payments and so on. There will be losses as well as gains.

The number crunching, in all honesty, cannot be done. With no official statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, data on same-sex couples and the cost of economic justice is unknown.

A Galaxy opinion poll last year indicated that 71 per cent of Australians supported economic justice for same-sex couples. Turnbull's ascension to leadership encouraged the Australian Coalition for Equality not only to congratulate, but also to call upon him 'to get on with the job of dragging his party into the 21st century'.

The Sydney Star Observer has reported that Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis, a moderate, is sensing a softening among Liberals who, while still pushing for recognition of the full range of interdependent relationships, may not block the current reforms if the interdependency model does not gain support. Attorney-General Robert McClelland has said he accepts Turnbull's claims of support for the removal of discrimination.

Economic justice for same-sex couples is a practical approach to ending legal and economic discrimination and suits politicians such as Turnbull (and indeed Rudd) who prefer steady pragmatism to volatile ideology.

Deborah SingermanDeborah Singerman is a Sydney-based freelance journalist, editor and managing editor. She has over 15 years experience specialising in sustainability and sociocultural issues within the built and urban environment.

Topic tags: economic justice, same-sex couples, gay, lesbian, Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws



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Existing comments

Very informative article! Appears an opportune (and imperative) for required changes in legislation to remove discriminations to be passed. That gay and lesbian members of our community continue to be denied economic and legal equality in a Western democratic country into the first decade of this century is shameful!

Karen | 07 October 2008  

The conservative Christian lobby is the real sticking point in the quest for justice for gay equality. Conservative Christians seem unable to follow to the logical letter that the whole human family is made in the image of God.

Dr Vacy Vlazna | 07 October 2008  

Is it possible just for once that members of both sides of Aus politics may be sincere in their belief that it's time to end the legal and economic injustice to gay couples? Is Deborah's implication fair that they are motivated not by their convictions but by possibility of gay votes?

Carmel Maguire | 07 October 2008  

Great article. The problem is the Liberal party is out of office and they obviously will want as many votes as possible for the next election and they are stuck between treating gays and lesbians equally and losing votes or not treating gays and lesbians equally and then losing votes. Seeing how most of Australia supports ending discrimination against same-sex couples (71% of australians) it makes sense to end the discrimination and bring this country into line with most western countries.

Jason Brown | 07 October 2008  

I am fascinated by the rituals and myths attending heterosexual privilege in all its invisible ubiquity. This excellent article does, however, echo one of the anomalies of the 2004 Marriage Amendment Bill, which states: 'Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.' When Deborah Singerman writes, 'marriage, [...] has been given 'a special status' as an irrefutable union between a man and a woman', she seems to suggest, much as the Bill itself does, that divorce and adultery are not legally recognised. Or does she mean that the 'special status' of heterosexuals, the privilege itself, is the irrefutable part?

Deborah Kelly | 08 October 2008  

May I echo Camel Maguire's point. If the author has a measure for determining when someone is motivated by concerns for justice as opposed to self-interest, perhaps she should share it. Is it not prejudice to assume that politicians invariably act out of self-interest? My understanding is that the marriage ceremony was instituted to sort out who was and who was not legitimate so we could determine who got what. Nothing much seems to have changed.

Kim Chen | 08 October 2008  

Great article. However, the number crunching can be done and was done for these bills (presumably using Census data). Interestingly, the changes result in savings of almost $70m over 4 years. Most of this would be due to recognising same-sex partners for social security and family benefits. In the long run, things might even out as the government has to pay more superannuation to surviving partners of public servants and military personnel. So recognition of same-sex relationships does come at a cost to gay and lesbian couples. As you point out, it's a price many will be willing to pay.

Matt | 13 October 2008  

.... Sydney seat of Wentworth, which has one of Australia's largest gay and lesbian populations...
I wonder how Ms Singerman came upon this information? Later she says
.... With no official statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, data on same-sex couples and the cost of economic justice is unknown.....
Like the majority of articles in your magazine - and perhaps the work of journalists generally, obtaining the real facts is a real problem! Let me hasten to add, I would like this comment to be seen as a constructive criticism - would it be possible to encourage authors to supply references for statements purporting to be 'facts'

peritech | 13 October 2008  

Wait, now I'm confused. I thought the argument from the "gay" lobby was that it's none of the government's business what they do in their bedrooms. Now they are apparently demanding that the government PAY them for doing it!

(They can't claim they're merely seeking payment just for being interdependent, because they're also demanding that the government must NOT make the same payments and regulatory supports to interdependent couples who don't have sex.)

Ronk | 17 October 2008  

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