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Same-sex marriage (SSM) and civil unions in Australia

2006 & 2007: ACT tries to legalize civil unions.
Objections by Christian groups on marriage equality.

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2006: The first try to bring civil unions to the Australian Capital Territory (ACT):

The ACT legislature, which governs the city of Canberra and surrounding area in Australia, passed a bill recognizing same-sex relationships. ACT's Civil Unions Bill 2006 granted such couples the right to enter into a civil union and granted them rights, privileges and obligations equal to married opposite-sex couples.

During the week of 2006-MAY-4, Prime Minister John Howard and his Cabinet announced their intent to overrule the law. The Australian federal government is able to veto any ACT law within six months of its enactment, under Section 35 the ACT Self-Government Act of 1988.

In an article on his personal web site titled "Commonwealth to defend marriage against territory laws," Philip Ruddock, the federal Attorney General said that the ACT law's attempt to equate civil unions with marriage is unacceptable. His article, posted on JUN-06, states:

"The Australian Government will act to defend the fundamental institution of marriage against radical laws passed by the Stanhope Government. Attorney-General Philip Ruddock today announced the intention to invalidate the ACT's Civil Unions Act 2006."

"'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,' Mr Ruddock stated."

"The ACT's Civil Unions Act 2006 creates a statutory scheme for the recognition of relationships which bears striking similarity to the Commonwealth's regulation of marriage." 

"Section 5(2) of the Civil Unions Act states:

"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."

Mr. Ruddock said:

"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 Mr Stanhope the Government's concerns with any ACT statutes which create ambiguity between marriage and civil unions. Amendments to the initial draft have not altered the substance of the ACT laws which make it clear that same sex civil unions are just marriage by another name."

The ACT government believes that, under the Self Government Act, Australia's Governor-General can ask for amendments to an ACT law, in place of having the federal government veto the law. ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell said that it would be more constructive for the Commonwealth to recommend amendments to the legislation "Rather than this vague assertion that it offends the institution of marriage."

He said:

"I mean there's no real way we can respond to that, but if they can give us real detail and proposed amendments that will satisfy their concerns, we stand ready to consider those, and consider them seriously."

"Tell us exactly which clauses and which provisions of our Act they are unhappy with how they believe those could be changed, and recommend those amendments through the Governor-General to the Legislative Assembly." 1

2006: Law vetoed:

On 2006-JUN-13,  Philip Ruddock, the Australian Attorney General announced that Australia's national government had overturned the ACT legislation, with the consent of the Governor General, effective that evening. He wrote in a statement:

"From then, there will be no legal basis for the formation of civil unions in the Australian Capital Territory."

Reuters reported:

"Australia's center-left Labor opposition has said the government was wrong to intervene over laws passed by the democratically elected ACT government..." 2,3

2006: ACT's second try:

Jamie Jansen of Jurist wrote:

ACT Attorney General Simon Corbell said Tuesday [2006-JUN-13] that the territory recognized that there was 'only an outside chance' that the Senate would overrule the federal government's decision to overturn the civil union bill. Corbell said that the ACT legislature would consider reintroducing similar legislation, but called for Ruddock to identify specific clauses the federal government found unacceptable so that the ACT's second try at a civil unions law would not similarly fail."

Corbell said the Commonwealth's veto was arrogant and undemocratic. He said:

"We're therefore considering reintroduction of a substantively same bill, and we'll consider any advice from the Commonwealth....We made 63 amendments in response to the Commonwealth's initial complaint, but Mr Ruddock refused last week to identify what clauses remained unacceptable."

Warren Entsch, (Liberal, Queensland) planned to introduce a private member's bill which would outlaw federal discrimination against same-sex couples. It would also extend to interdependent couples, such as the infirm and the persons caring for them. The bill is different from the ACT law because it would not refer to marriage. Mr Entsch wrote to fellow legislators, explaining the level of discrimination in access to superannuation, veterans' entitlements, taxation treatment and Medicare. He said that:

"The Prime Minister has told me he was surprised with the levels of discrimination, and he's got no aversion to removing that discrimination."

The Green and Democratic parties asked the Senate to overturn the veto. But they appear to lack sufficient support.

David Humphries of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote:

"The Greens' Kerry Nettle said the Commonwealth intervention was hateful but lacked logical explanation. The self-government rights of the ACT had been trampled to deny rights to same-sex couples, she said."

Mary-Anne Cosgrove, spokesperson for the Civil Unions Defence Coalition said that sovereignty, as well as human rights, was at risk. She said:

"We also believe in the right of the ACT people to live under the laws enacted by their democratically elected government."

The veto was implemented. During a few months in 2006, loving committed same-sex couples went from being considered roommates, to having the option of being civil unionized, and back to roommates once more. 4

2007: Anti-gay discrimination is OK; Labor wins election

On 2007-OCT-30, Cardinal George Pell, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, said that continuing discrimination against same-sex couples is appropriate and that it is wrong to equate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation with discrimination on the basis of race.

He saw mounting agitation to remove exemptions for faith-based adoption and other agencies that currently allow them to discriminate against gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

Cardinal Pell stated:

"Same sex marriage and adoption, changes the meaning of marriage, family, parenting and childhood for everyone -- not just for homosexual couples. And whatever issues of basic justice remain to be addressed, I am not sure that it is at all true to say that homosexuals today suffer the same sort of legal and civil disadvantage which black in the United States and elsewhere suffered 40 years ago and, to some extent, still suffer."

Jim Wallace, the head of the Australian Christian Lobby, said:

"Discrimination per se is not a bad word, as such. And it is not something that is necessarily a bad concept. I think what we're talking about here is making sure that while remove unfair discrimination, that we do not allow a very small part of the population to force their model for relationship to be adopted as the community norm, when it isn't. ... The problem [with same-sex marriage] is that it complicates the definition of family, it confuses children and it's suggested that this is a normal and healthy alternative."

Later in 2007, the Labor Party won the Australian federal election. This was a momentous development for the LGBT community. During 2007-DEC, the ACT introduced a civil unions law for a third time. This time, the federal government did not immediately intervene to veto it. However, during 2008-FEB, the new federal Attorney General. Robert McClelland. objected to one provision of the ACT law: it would allow same-sex couples to hold public ceremonies to celebrate their civil unions. Presumably, McClelland objected because this would make civil unions too much like marriages. Negotiations failed to resolve this issue, and so once more the ACT government was forced to abandon its civil unions legislation.

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This topic continues in the next essay

Quotations used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Commonwealth to defend marriage against territory laws," 2006-JUN-06, at: http://www.ag.gov.au/
  2. Jaime Jansen, "Australia federal government nixes civil unions law in capital district," Jurist Legal News & Research, 2006-JUN-13, at: http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/
  3. "Australia government overrules gay marriage laws," Reuters, 2006-JUN-13, at: http://reuters.myway.com/
  4. David Humphries, "ACT vows to try again on same-sex union rights," Sydney Morning Herald, 2006-JUN-14, at: http://www.smh.com.au/

Copyright © 2006 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2006-JUN-14
Latest update: 2012-FEB-23
Partly written by: B.A. Robinson

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