AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY: by Angela ConwayNews Weekly
Bid to elevate status of same-sex unions
, April 15, 2006
The ACT Government is trying to have same-sex civil unions virtually recognised as marriage, writes Angela Conway
.The federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock has attacked the ACT Government for trying to have same-sex civil unions virtually recognised as marriage.
The ACT's Labor Chief Minister Jon Stanhope introduced his controversial Civil Union Bill on March 28, stating that its aim was to provide "a scheme for two people, regardless of their sex, to enter into a formally recognised union ... that attracts the same rights and obligations as would attach to married spouses under Territory law".
He promised that the Bill, if enacted, would "deliver functional equality under ACT law for couples who either do not have access to marriage under the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961 or who prefer not to marry", and that their relationship would then enjoy "the same legal recognition under ACT law as marriage".Domestic partnership
He told the ACT Legislative Assembly that, "like marriage, a civil union is a particular form of domestic partnership" that "would be treated in the same way as a marriage".
He later tried to head off opposition to the Bill by arguing that the legislation would still recognise marriage as distinct.
But Attorney-General Philip Ruddock has attacked Mr Stanhope for allegedly misrepresenting the effect of the proposed legislation.
He cited provisions in the ACT Bill that would make any reference to a marriage "include a reference to a civil union". In addition, Mr Ruddock cited section 5 of the Bill, which states: "A civil union is to be treated for all purposes under Territory law in the same way as a marriage."
The Bill seeks to circumvent Commonwealth provisions that prevent a same-sex couple from getting their overseas "marriage" recognized in Australia. Mr Stanhope's legislation would allow the ACT to bestow civil union status, and therefore marriage equivalence, on these relationships as well as on other non-marriage relationships recognised interstate.
Mr Ruddock said, in a letter to Mr Stanhope, that the Commonwealth Government opposed "any action which would reduce the status of marriage to that of other relationships, or which would create confusion over the distinction between marriage and same-sex relationships". (Melbourne Age
, March 30, 2006).
His response was welcomed by the Australian Family Association, which has long argued that marriage between a man and a woman is a natural institution and a fundamental expression of human nature. Nearly all cultures historically have recognised that it is marriage that knits individuals and families together into tribes, societies or nations, and that marriage is the only secure foundation for the begetting and raising of children.
Tasmanian Liberal senator, Guy Barnett, is reportedly urging the Commonwealth Government to disallow the Territory legislation, and Prime Minister John Howard has also indicated that his Government may act to preserve the "special and traditional place of marriage", as defined in the Commonwealth Marriage Act.
It is not yet clear just where Canberra will draw the line on this issue. Mr Stanhope has indicated that he may be willing to amend his Bill so as to avoid any clash with Commonwealth legislation. A spokesperson for Mr Stanhope has argued that the Bill is principally designed to remove legal discrimination against same-sex couples.
Mr Ruddock said: "The Commonwealth has no problem with state laws giving same-sex couples the same legal rights as married couples. But it objects to the use of marriage celebrants - licensed under federal marriage laws - performing civil union ceremonies, which the ACT bill appears to allow for as well as all other provisions that equate civil unions with marriage." (Melbourne Age
, March 30, 2006).
Various federal and state legislative changes over the last 30 years have gone a long way towards blurring the practical distinctiveness of marriage, first by accommodating impermanent and less committed de facto
relationships, and later homosexual relationships.
The ACT Government proposes to create complete legal equivalence between terms like "civil union" and "marriage", and between "spouse" and "civil union partner". The only concession to the special status of marriage is the provision to allow a later marriage to dissolve a civil union.
In 2004, the Australian Family Association strongly supported the Howard Government's Marriage Amendment Act. The Act was intended to uphold the traditional definition of marriage as being a voluntary union for life between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, and particularly to block attempts to have same-sex relationships recognised as marriage.
Canberra has also fought moves by state Labor governments to grant same-sex relationships any level of recognition or status that could jeopardise the privileged status of marriage.
Federal Shadow Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has previously promised recognition for civil unions and has criticised any federal moves to "interfere" in relation to the ACT Bill.
- Angela Conway is vice-president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Family Association.