Simple changes could end discrimination for thousands of Australian couples

This press release from the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), dated 21 June 2007, has largely gone off the media radar due to Howard’s Indigenous Emergency plan hogging all the limelight:

Changing the definitions describing de facto relationships in relevant federal laws could help end daily discrimination suffered by more than 20,000 same-sex couples in Australia, according to a report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), tabled in Federal Parliament today.

The Same-Sex: Same Entitlements Report, being officially launched in Sydney tomorrow by Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes AM, found that 58 federal laws denied same-sex couples and their children basic financial and work-related entitlements available to opposite-sex couples and their children.

“As one man told us during our Inquiry – same-sex couples are first class tax-payers but second class citizens – and we have certainly found this to be true,” Mr Innes said.

“This discrimination is completely unfair. There are 58 federal laws breaching the most fundamental of human rights principles ““ non-discrimination, equality before the law and the best interests of the child.”

Mr Innes pointed out that same-sex couples often pay more tax than opposite-sex couples because of discrimination in tax law, yet they cannot expect the same entitlements in employment, workers’ compensation, veterans’ entitlements, health care subsidies, family law, superannuation, aged care and immigration law.

“Simple amendments to the definitions in a raft of federal laws would end this discrimination,” Mr Innes said.

President of HREOC, John von Doussa, who also led the Inquiry, said the discriminatory laws also have a negative impact on children.

“The Inquiry found that the best interests of children would be better protected if federal, state and territory laws changed to recognise the relationship between a child and both parents in a same-sex couple,” Mr von Doussa said.

The Same-Sex: Same Entitlementsreport is based on HREOC’s 2006 National Inquiry into discrimination against people in same-sex relationships in the area of financial and work-related entitlements. The Inquiry held public hearings and community forums around Australia and received 680 submissions covering a range of topics, many of which described first-hand the impact of discriminatory laws on same-sex couples and their children.

The final report is available online at Personal stories of Inquiry participants can be found in appendix two.

Heterosexual couples who don’t wish to be officially married are extremely fortunate in Australia that legislation exists to protect partner rights and benefits for de-facto married couples. This is extremely important in ensuring that unmarried couples have the same rights as married couples regarding taxation, insurance, employment, workers’ compensation, veterans’ entitlements, health care subsidies, family law, superannuation, aged care and immigration law. This protects both partners in case of serious illness or financial adversity and ensures an equitable division of assets and custody when a partnership ends.

This is not the case in many other countries – in the USA, for example, it is usually impossible to have family medical insurance for a partner and children unless the couple is registered as married.(Aside: I often wonder whether this is at the heart of conservative resistance to universal health care in the USA – they couldn’t bear to see the immediate downturn in the marriage rate that would result.)

As the HREOC press release makes clear, same sex couples don’t get access to the same privileges as unmarried opposite sex couples simply because our laws referring to de facto partnerships are written to define de facto partnerships as between opposite sex individuals only. This is why the press report refers to simple changes – they actually only have to take words out, not put them in. All they have to do is refer to “two adults cohabiting in a domestic situation” instead of to “two adults of the opposite sex cohabiting in a domestic situation”.

For me, the added fact that such a change would possibly give adults cohabiting in non-sexual partnerships (eg siblings, parent-child, elderly retirees sharing living expenses) the same financial and family law benefits and rights as adults cohabiting in sexual partnerships is a feature, not a bug.

Listening to discussion on ABC talkback radio about this issue, I was disheartened at some of the ignorance on display. One man claimed that he couldn’t see why same sex couples would want their relationships legally recognised as de facto partnerships because so long as they were not they got more benefits with both adults qualifying for the single recipient rate. Obviously, this totally ignores the problems with health care subsidies and family law and everything else, and then he came out with the doozy (paraphrased):

Besides, if they’ve got kids and they aren’t counted as a couple, then both of them can claim children benefit payments, can’t they?

This was, of course, said in what I call the gotcha-gloat tone, as if to say “and if you think they aren’t already doing that all the time then you’re an idiot”.

Right. Any old adult can claim child benefits for any children they purport to parent without having to show that their name is on the birth certificate as the biological parent, can they? Or without showing legal adoption papers? Funnily enough, I really don’t think that is true. In fact, I’m sure that the exact opposite is true – a same sex parent who is not the biological parent cannot get recognised as a parent legally at all – not for the purpose of healthcare decisions (fancy taking your child to hospital and having to prove that you have the right to be in the same room?), not for the purpose of education decisions, not for a multitude more decisions.

What an ignorant jerk. The pity is that he’s not the only one.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, law & order

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