Australia’s debate on the best way to recognise same-sex couples is trapped in a web of myths about the nation’s first and only recognition scheme, the Tasmanian relationship registry.
One of the most persistent myths is that this registry certifies existing de facto relationships rather than creating new legal unions between intending partners like a marriage or civil union.
This myth was invented by the ACT Government to diminish the Tasmanian scheme next to the its civil union proposal, and has been perpetuated by the Federal Government and the Australian Christian Lobby because they need a reform option which they can assure their conservative constituents does not “mimic marriage”.
But the reality is that when a Tasmanian Deed of Relationships is signed, witnessed and registered a new legal union is created with the equivalent of full marital rights in state law. This is why, in the eyes of foreign governments like Britain’s, a Tasmanian registered relationship is considered to be a civil partnership for the purposes of UK law.
The real difference between the Tasmanian registry and ACT civil union proposal is not if but how, and at exactly what point, new legal unions are created. In Tasmania, a new legally-recognised relationship begins when a Deed of Relationship, signed by the intending partners before a Commissioner of Declarations, is officially registered. The ACT Government wants to backdate the existence of the new relationship to the moment of signing, in the same way as a marriage, to give that moment greater symbolic meaning and allow a formal ceremony to be constructed around it. This is the legally insignificant, culturally explosive and still largely unacknowledged reason the ACT proposal has encountered opposition from Christian groups and successive federal governments.
Another myth about the Tasmanian registry, favoured by the Australian Christian Lobby, is that it equates same-sex partners with companions. It’s true that the registry is open to companionate and familial partners but only because it equates all relationships, opposite sex, same sex or no sex.
This principle of equity and inclusion extends to removing traditional marriage-related terms like “husband”, “wife”, “spouse” and “de facto partner” from Tasmanian law and replacing them with the far broader and more inclusive categories of “significant partner” and “caring partner”.
The real reason, then, the Tasmanian registry can’t be said to “mimic marriage” is that it takes us beyond marriage altogether. The fact that Tasmanian relationship registry knocks marriage off its legal pedestal is why Christian lobbyists strongly opposed its establishment in 2004, something they are very quiet about now they face a more urgent adversary in the ACT’s more marriage-like model for reform.
Other common myths about the Tasmanian scheme are that it is a heartless system which registers partners as if they are dogs or cars, and that, as a result, the take up rate is relatively low.
The dog and car comparison is not only unfair to recognised Tasmanian partners, who take their legal status very seriously, it is wrong. It’s a Deed of Relationship which is registered, just like a marriage certificate, on a register, by a registrar, in a registry.
In line with the principles underlying the registry, the registration process was designed so that partners could make of it whatever they wanted, rather than being expected to go through a traditional wedding to access entitlements. Some partners have traditional ceremonies, some design their own, and some have none at all.
This seems to have had no impact on take-up rates. In proportion to population, there have been as many relationships formally recognised in Tasmania as in New Zealand where they call these relationships “civil unions” where ceremonial vows open the door to entitlements.
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