A POLITICAL stoush continued last week over the Australian Capital Territory’s Civil Unions Act 2006 and the federal Attorney General’s announcement that the Government would invalidate the “radical” laws.
The ACT’s Act creates a statutory scheme for the recognition of relationships. Section 5 states “a civil union is a legally recognised relationship that, subject to this Act, may be entered into by any two people, regardless of their sex”. It follows that “a civil union is different to a marriage but is to be treated for all purposes under territory law in the same way as a marriage”.
According to Attorney General Philip Ruddock, however, the ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope has “consistently misrepresented” the intent of the Commonwealth Marriage Act.
“The Commonwealth Marriage Act makes it clear marriage is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others. This definition, which reflects the traditional understanding of marriage, was passed into law with bipartisan support in 2004,” Ruddock said.
But Stanhope said he would lobby his Labor colleagues and Michael Jeffery, Governor-General, to not accept the Howard Government’s decision. “I can make representations to the Governor-General imploring him not to be party to an act that would discriminate against Australian citizens who have a different sexual orientation,” Stanhope told ABC radio.
“I would be gravely disappointed if my federal colleagues in the Labor Party did not seek at least — acknowledging the numbers in the Federal Parliament — to have the disallowable instrument disallowed.
“It is simply not appropriate that Federal Parliament, through its processes, send that signal that the Federal Parliament of Australia believes it’s appropriate to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples.”
Stanhope said he was angry and disappointed by Cabinet’s decision. “The Prime Minister, I believe, is simply using another marginalised, disempowered group for his, I think, quite odious political purposes,” he said.
Speaking at a doorstop interview in the offices of the Law Institute of Victoria in Melbourne last week, Ruddock said the ACT move was a “very provocative act”. “They knew that this would be a matter of concern and now they feign surprise that the Commonwealth has said this measure will be overturned.”
Ruddock said the Government was not discriminating against homosexual people. “Look, we are not about discriminating against people who are homosexual or in homosexual relationships. All we are saying is they are not marriage and if people want to use state laws to suggest that they should be treated as such, it is obviously, in our view, beyond their competence.”
Ruddock said the ACT Chief Minister had misrepresented the intent of the legislation. “Despite his public assurances to the contrary, this legislation has always been a cynical attempt by the Chief Minister to undermine the institution of marriage and circumvent the Commonwealth Marriage Act.”
“I have raised with [Stanhope] the Government’s concerns with any ACT statutes which create ambiguity between marriage and civil unions,” he said.
But Nicola Roxon, Shadow Attorney General, said the ACT has made it clear that civil unions are not the same as marriages. “Other than pure arrogance, there is no reason for federal intervention in this case,” Roxon said in a statement. “This is another stunning example of the Howard Government’s arrogance, riding roughshod over the democratically elected ACT legislature.”
Roxon argued that the law should recognise caring and loving relationships, adding that it is within the power of the ACT to provide its own system for recognising same sex relationships. “The federal Government is wrong to intervene, especially when federal law still continues to discriminate against same sex relationships at the national level,” she said.
Opposition leader Kim Beazley said he would look at the ACT legislation before finalising a decision. “We will take a careful look at what the ACT has come out with and we will determine our position on the basis of that analysis,” he told ABC radio.
In a meeting with the Federal Attorney-General this week the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) raised the importance of recognising that same sex partnerships exist in our community.
“Same sex partnerships should be legally recognised and the government should act to ensure that lesbians and gay men are treated equally with their heterosexual counterparts and have the same access to legal remedies,” said Cathy Gale, LIV president.
“The Government should shift its focus from protecting the Marriage Act to achieving a just outcome for all Australians,” Gale said.