Labor’s rather confusing attitude to the ACT same-sex civil unions Bill became a little clearer in an interview with federal Attorney General Robert McClelland published in The Australian on February 7. McClelland is reported to have said that the “ceremonial aspects of the ACT’s civil unions model were unacceptable”.
He went on to suggest that the Federal Government would be prepared to endorse a watered-down form of so-called “civil union” that appeared to be little more than an existing state and territory based registration scheme akin to that in Tasmania.
Such registration schemes have removed a range of forms of discrimination. However, they are used to register not just same-sex unions but also a range of other, non-sexual interdependent relationships, which is why the religious right has often found them easier to accept than full civil unions for same-sex couples.
In other words, federal Labor would prefer that civil unions stay in the closet, or as The Australian headline perceptively put it “Gay unions OK, just not in public”. It is usual for countries that have same-sex civil unions, such as Britain, to allow public ceremonies. Why then is this not the case in Australia?
McClelland’s statements regarding ceremonies are particularly significant given that the Howard government rejected the ACT’s 2006 same-sex Civil Unions Bill by claiming that its ceremonial features “mimicked marriage”. Gay and Lesbian activists were therefore very concerned when the ALP’s 2007 National Conference inserted a clause into the 2007 ALP National Platform and Constitution stating that Labor would “not create schemes that mimic marriage” and Labor made similar statements in response to an Australian Christian Lobby survey.
It is still not clear how Labor will respond if the ACT goes ahead and passes its bill, particularly given Rudd’s reported comments, in 2006 and 2007, that a Federal Labor government wouldn’t interfere with the states’ and territories’ rights to pass such legislation.
Nonetheless, the Australian Christian Lobby appears to believe that it had an undertaking from Labor to oppose ACT-style civil unions, as part of a 2007 election sweetener to the religious right. At the least, federal Labor appears to have promised to try to water down the ACT’s civil unions legislation, perhaps also to placate religious conservatives in its own ranks. (Note that it already appears that the ACT will continue to use the formal term "civil partnerships" - a linguistic re-badging of its civil unions originally introduced to try to get revised legislation past the Howard
However, Federal Labor needs to think very carefully about the implications of its opposition to including the option of a ceremony in a civil unions law.
To begin with, it is an extraordinary imposition on the civil rights of citizens. Imagine the outcry if Federal, State and Territory governments tried to prevent specific ethnic or religious groups having ceremonies incorporated into civil or religious heterosexual marriages? Would that type of government interference be considered acceptable for other groups of citizens? Labor supported Howard when he made same-sex marriage illegal, now Labor is also trying to seriously circumscribe the lesser form of union that some countries such as Britain (where same-sex marriage is also illegal) have been prepared to offer gay and lesbian citizens precisely because they can’t marry.
Labor’s opposition to public ceremonies is clearly highly discriminatory in itself but, more than that, it reinforces one of the most obvious forms of discrimination against gays and lesbians in a homophobic society, namely the injunction to keep same-sex relationships out of the public eye and in the closet. In other words, once Labor passes its welcome same-sex law reforms, you may be able to inform a public servant that you are in a same-sex relationship for taxation purposes but please don’t have a government sanctioned public ceremony declaring your love!
McClelland’s arguments are simply the latest version of a longstanding tendency in Australian politics for even those supporting same-sex law reform to suggest that, unlike heterosexuality, same-sex love should stay to some extent a private matter, hidden from public view.
It has been common for politicians to make unashamedly discriminatory statements in this regard that would be considered absolutely outrageous if applied to heterosexuals. So, former Liberal PM John Gorton could say openly in a 1973 speech in favour of male homosexual law reform:
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