The Howard Government has done more to legally recognise same-sex relationships in the past 13 months, than previous Labor governments did in 13 years. Under Howard same-sex couples have limited rights to superannuation death benefits, are recognised in passport application processes and beneficial definitions in anti-terror laws, while those in the military now have equal rights to relocation and accommodation expenses and access to defence force home loan grants.
None of this was forthcoming under Hawke or Keating despite lobbying on some of these issues. Labor moved some modest reforms during its reign of government but it was timid. The ALP lifted the ban on gay and lesbian people serving in the military, but refused to extend partnership benefits to defence force personnel in same-sex relationships. It would take another 13 years and a Coalition Government to move on that.
Labor also created the “interdependency” category in immigration processes to facilitate the recognition of same-sex relationships for residency, however, this category remains problematic and discriminatory.
And the ALP introduced federal legislation aimed at overriding Tasmania’s anti-sodomy laws on the recommendation of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, while at the same time ignoring the UNHRC’s parallel recommendation to introduce national anti-discrimination laws for all gay and lesbian people.
As a consequence, Australia remains one of the few western countries with no national anti-discrimination laws and no comprehensive partnership rights for same-sex couples. In this regard, we have fallen further behind many Eastern European and Latin America countries.
This could largely be remedied by allowing same-sex marriages, but in 2004 the Howard Government passed legislation to ban gay and lesbian people from marriage and to prevent Australian authorities from recognising gay marriages legally conducted overseas. Labor supported this.
Interestingly, in recent times the high profile civil union between Elton John and his partner David Furnish in Britain has exposed dissent in Liberal ranks prompting five of its MPs to call for civil unions in Australia. This means more than twice the number of Coalition MP’s have called for civil unions than have the number of Labor MP’s.
The prime minister however, is digging in his heels. To corral the votes of the Religious Right he’s opposed to gay marriage and civil unions. When pressed, he said: “I would be opposed to a recognition of civil unions, although I am strongly in favour ... of removing any property and other discrimination that exists against people who have same-sex relationships."
When Opposition Leader Kim Beazley was asked what he thought of civil unions, he didn’t answer the question. Through a spokesperson he told reporters he was opposed to gay marriage. He has been in hiding on the topic of civil unions ever since. No journalist has yet pursued him on this.
So, does this mean the Coalition is now more tolerant, compassionate and increasingly non-discriminatory as it wants us to believe?
Far from it. What we are witnessing is a situation where community attitudes have advanced much further and much faster than either of the major parties will acknowledge, thereby creating a fault line between old prejudice and new politics.
Many Liberals are slowly and pragmatically reading the mood of the nation and recognise the time has come to move forward. Labor’s response has been paralysis, unsure of what to say or how to react. Labor is struggling with its immense policy gap between the substantial gay and lesbian law reforms enacted by State Labor Governments and the hollowness of it’s much more conservative federal wing.
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