Quick hit: New Centrelink “equality” to hit older lesbians the worst

SMH: “Gay couples to face new era of financial discrimination

Adele Horin

December 6, 2008

A major achievement of the Rudd Labor Government is the recent passage of historic legislation to remove discrimination against gay and lesbian couples from dozens of laws. As the celebrations die down, however, it is clear the win for human rights is a serious blow to many gay people.

Elderly gay couples will lose pension income, face Centrelink investigations into their sex lives and will be forced to “come out” of the closet and risk prosecution for fraud. Some in their late 60s, 70s and 80s have faced a lifetime of inequality; they missed out on benefits available to heterosexuals and many have felt the full force of the nation’s homophobia. Now they are too old to gain from the new legal equality won in areas as diverse as family law and insurance entitlements. Instead, from July 1 next year, they will suffer pension losses through being treated as a couple rather than as two singles.

The Government’s much-lauded same-sex reforms, ironically, have continued the tradition of treating gays differently from heterosexuals. Every significant change to social security laws passed in the last 15 years has included a “grandfather” clause to minimise harsh consequences for those already in the system.[…]

Take the case of a lesbian couple known to the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre. One of the women had planned to retire soon from her job in an alternative school. A pioneer in the gay liberation movement, she had stayed at the school for 30 years despite the low pay, believing a mainstream school would have sacked her over her political activism. Her partner had been dismissed after having “come out” to her religious employer. The dismissal was lawful because of the religious exemption to the anti-discrimination laws.

Partly because of the effects of the dismissal, and being shunned by her family and former congregation, the woman had been on the disability support pension. The employed teacher said she would have to defer retirement because of the new laws as she could not afford to pay her mortgage on a couple’s rate of pension, something she had not anticipated.

Another woman, with her children, had left a violent husband and had lived with her female partner for 30 years. Her female partner helped support the children but could not claim them for tax, Medicare safety net or other benefits. Now the couple are retired they faced a reduced pension income without having had time to prepare. They told the legal centre they considered themselves losers twice over.

As well, many elderly closeted gays in receipt of government payments are baulking at the prospect of having to register their relationship status with Centrelink from March, in effect “outing” themselves.[…]

Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, law & order, relationships

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35 replies

  1. That’s just crap, people like that who spent their whole lives without support finally get recognized as couple just at the stage of their life when they need MORE support. As a gay girl I appreciate why they started recognizing the truth of relationships like mine. I understand how it is unfair that homosexuals effectively got more money than heterosexuals from centerlink. I’ve been noticing it ever since I got my student pension and thought it was a bit unfair. I don’t mind that this was done to me because there are systems in place for me now to make a good financial future for myself. I can’t say that for the ones that came before me.
    They were more vulnerable than heterosexuals to all sorts of financial mishaps who grew up and old with certain expectations of limitations and (in my mind) marginal benefits.
    This is giving them all the limitations and taking away some of the few benefits. I’m not saying that all gay people should have their relationships ignored by centerlink but there should be a phasing system so that people who made plans for their retirement can keep those plans.
    The forcibly outing thing is an issue for me too, but I can’t properly articulate that one so I’ll leave it be for now.

  2. Really If you want equality of treatment for homosexual relationships then you have to accept equality of treatment from Centrelink in terms of the monies paid for couples. It is hypocrisy to argue for a special exemption when you advocate for equality.

  3. The lack of grandfather clauses is inexcusable.
    Aside from that, I’ve always found Centrelink to be incredibly invasive– when I was applying for Youth Allowance as an undergrad, they wanted to know a whole bunch of details about every member of the opposite sex that I shared my house with, to ensure that they weren’t supporting me– and as I was living in student housing at the time, this meant I had to ask a couple of guys who were almost complete strangers to me to fill out a bunch of details to give to the Australian government. Not cool. I just hated the assumption that because I shared a house with some guys, there was a chance that they might be supporting me. Of course, I also hated the assumption that a similar arrangement could not exist between two members of the same sex (and I have no idea what provisions there were for intersex individuals). And given that I found this so invasive even as a person with plenty of heterosexual privilege, I can’t imagine how terrible it must be for someone who has been forced to hide their relationship due to the discrimination they’ve faced.
    I think that Centrelink penalises people for being in a relationship far too harshly, and it’s unsurprising that this is going to hit people in same sex relationships hardest of all.

  4. @ Iain Hall:

    It is hypocrisy to argue for a special exemption when you advocate for equality.

    So this means nothing to you in terms of equality?

    ”Every significant change to social security laws passed in the last 15 years has included a “grandfather” clause to minimise harsh consequences for those already in the system.”

    It’s not us who are the hypocrites.

  5. Tig tog
    Surely you are not arguing that one hypocrisy justifies another?

  6. @ Iain Hall:
    No, I’m arguing that grandfather clauses for people already in the system are generally a just and equitable way of handing systemic changes.

  7. Iain Hall, you sound very much like a centrelink employee.

  8. No PP I am not a Centrelink employee I just can’t see the sense or the morality of complaining that gay individuals are being treated the same as heterosexuals.
    You see I agree that Centrelink are incredibly invasive when it comes to the private life of all claimants, but i can’t see how they can be otherwise for as long as they pay couples less than the sum of what each individual could receive in their own right purely because people, being what they are, will very often tel the story that results in the most money.

  9. @ Iain Hall:

    I just can’t see the sense or the morality of complaining that gay individuals are being treated the same as heterosexuals

    See, there’s your problem: we’re actually complaining that some homosexuals are still not being treated the same as heterosexuals because previous such changes that have affected only heterosexual couples have been grandfathered, and this one is not.

  10. Really you are comparing apples and oranges.
    Do heterosexual people have to declare the nature of the relationships with people they share houses of flats with? You know they do, so it is hardly surprising that in this day and age of equality that the same questions should be asked of all individuals who live under the same roof, and I have never heard of any of the rules pertaining to cohabitation being grandfathered but if you know of any please lets compare those to this change rather than other entirely unrelated instances of exceptions to Centrelink rules.

  11. Before you get too bogged down arguing with Iain, remember that he’s the dude who uses “leftard” repeatedly on his blog, cheered for Prop 8 passing, whined about “Buggery 101″ in school, and thinks women who’ve had more than one abortion should be “neutered”.
    But if you want to play with him just for diversion, by all means go ahead.

  12. The stupid – it burns. That Windshuttle-esque logic is not like our Earth logic.

  13. I support some sensible grandfathering.
    One of the cases cited above doesn’t do much to advance the cause. If the schoolteacher couple had been assessed as a couple in the past it is possible the partner would not have recieved the disability pension.
    There are swings and roundabouts in all this.

  14. I don’t think Centrelink should be examining ANYONE’s sex life. First, because it’s so hard to “prove” that two people are a couple that it’s effectively rewarding those who lie and penalising honest people (I used to work for Centrelink and I knew of lots of people who lived with partners but claimed as two single people).
    Second, because it makes little difference whether you are partners, friends or just flatmates. Whatever your relationship, it is still cheaper to live with somebody else than on your own, those people don’t need as much benefits.
    Third, because it should remain a personal decision as to when/how to out oneself, not something to be decided by Centrelink / the government.
    Also, if an elderly gay/lesbian couple has suffered due to discrimination in the past – which no doubt many have – that doesn’t mean they are entitled to get extra social security money now. What they are wanting is compensation, which is a totally different issue.

  15. Angelfish, I’m a bit confused by what I’m reading as a conflict between your first para and your last. If you believe that Centrelink shouldn’t be examining anyone’s sex life, why should gay pensioners’ SS claims be characterised as “extra”, as over and above their entitlements?

  16. I used to work for Centrelink and I knew of lots of people who lived with partners but claimed as two single people
    I’ve known people who’ve done this simply because it was the only way for them to stay afloat while one was too ill to work for six months.
    it makes little difference whether you are partners, friends or just flatmates. Whatever your relationship, it is still cheaper to live with somebody else than on your own, those people don’t need as much benefits.
    I disagree. I think there’s a certain assumption that two people in a partnership will be willing to support each other if one loses their job, gets sick, etc. I don’t think anyone would expect a mere flatmate to cover their rent, bills and/or groceries in similar circumstances. Mind you, I still think Centrelink is too harsh on couples, but there are definitely things that one would ask of a long time parter that one would not ask of a flatmate.
    Also, if an elderly gay/lesbian couple has suffered due to discrimination in the past – which no doubt many have – that doesn’t mean they are entitled to get extra social security money now. What they are wanting is compensation, which is a totally different issue.
    That’s not the issue at all. The issue is that they’ve had to base their plans for retirement on a system that discriminates against them, and now they’re expected to adapt their plans as though that discrimination never happened. It’s not about compensation, it’s about recognising that they’ve had to work within the system for a long time now. Heterosexual couples and individuals who have been in similar circumstances when welfare systems have changed have been protected by grandfather clauses– why shouldn’t homosexual couples have the same protections?

  17. ”I think there’s a certain assumption that two people in a partnership will be willing to support each other if one loses their job, gets sick, etc. I don’t think anyone would expect a mere flatmate to cover their rent, bills and/or groceries in similar circumstances.”
    from personal experience I gotta disagree, Beppie. One time Centerlink got all bureaucratic on me and refused to pay me for nearly two months. my landlord let me stay with the promise I’d pay him back when Centerlink backpayed me ( much love to my landlord by the way, that was an awesome thing for him to do for me). During that time my housemates gave me money for food and transport with the same promise.
    If you have a trusting relationship with your housemates (like close friends for instance) then it can be reasonable to expect support. maybe not to the same extent (I doubt my housemates would have been so helpful if Centerlink carried it on for another month) but a reasonable amount.

  18. Surely, though, that situation is a lot less likely with flatmates, and also, they were doing so on the assumption that you would pay them back eventually– with a partner, often there wouldn’t be that assumption. I can’t speak for all relationships, of course, but I’ve known far more people who’ve been supported by a partner, with no expectation of the money being returned, than people who’ve been supported by their flatmates in such a way.
    If someone is your partner, then there is a reasonable expectation that you’re invested in each other’s wellbeing– this is also possible with flatmates, but it’s also possible that your flatmates are people randomly assigned to you by student housing, or people you’ve found through an ad, or simply friends who aren’t so close that you aren’t comfortable asking them to cover your rent.

  19. What exactly is a ‘grandfather’ clause? I don’t think I’ve heard of this term before…

  20. Purrdence, from part of the article that was omitted:

    Legal changes arising from the recognition of women’s equality, for example, were introduced in a way that protected an older generation.
    The changes to the age pension that raised the qualifying age for women from 60 to 65 were introduced gradually over a period of 20 years. The wife pension, which enabled younger women married to pensioners to also qualify for a pension, was abolished in 1995 but recipients of the time were protected. Changes to the widow pension and other entitlements were grandfathered. But no grandfather clause has been included in the social security changes that extend equal treatment to gay couples.

  21. Grandparenting clauses for implementation are entirely appropriate in this context. We are shifting from a base of nothing to a base of ‘all systems goes’ in reality. And to those who try to argue this from an “equality of treatment in relationships” means one must accept an “equality of treatment from Centrelink” basis would do well to remember that whenever the qualifying age for the aged pension from the government is increased, there are always grandparenting clauses that ensure those on the ‘cusp’ as it were are not disadvantaged. This is another of those examples.

  22. I agree that there should be grandfathering clauses in this case, especially for G&L people who have responsibly planned their retirement on one basis and now find the basis has changed. However, I also think that it is definitely time that G&L people were treated as equal in very way – and if that will sometimes be to our disadvantage then that’s how it is. Swings and roundabouts indeed.
    The cultural difference that has arisen between G&L relationships and het relationships can run very deep, because of the different expectations each group has of their rights to government support (at least up until now), especially as couples age. Earlier this year we wanted to to put both of our names on the titles of both of our houses. This ended up being a huge drama, and one of the things we argued about with the lawyer (who was an older gay man) was that he wanted us to put in a clause that we would not be responsible for each other if one of us became ill or disabled. We said we were quite happy to take responsibility for each other in that circumstance, but he said that not having that clause could prevent the sick/disabled person getting a government benefit. Clearly this is no longer relevant, but it reveals the tentacles of disadvantage that have ruled our relationships with bureaucracy. (We didn’t put the clause in, by the way!)
    M-H’s last blog post..A great loss

  23. omg i just read this on there site im so disgusted its illegal lets all speak out now!!!!!!!!!!!!! Take our money yet ignore marriage

  24. oh and prove it too centerlink? you may just offend alot of people… be carefull.

  25. The English teacher in me goes

  26. Same Sex Relationship Recognition, Social Security and older people:
    Not equality, but discrimination twice over
    I commend the Government for the passage of the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Act 2008, but am concerned about one glaring injustice the legislation has inadvertently brought about – the removal of age and disability pensions and other allowances and benefits from a class of persons who will suffer immeasurably as a result.
    I understand that this is the first amendment to the Social Security Act in over 15 years that has removed a pension or benefit from a class of person and not grand-parented those already on a pension or benefit.
    Older gay men and lesbians have suffered long-standing inequality, particularly in relation to family law, health insurance, taxation, property rights, access to employer benefits, access to insurance and superannuation, death and disability entitlements, compensation, laws of succession, and employer benefits for spouses.
    Social Security policy has evolved in response to social change, allowing for savings provisions for those who have been historically disadvantaged. In many ways, the situation of gay and lesbian couples now affected by Act is analogous to that faced by women during the phasing out of Social Security payments targeting women, due to the changing role of women in Australian society.
    Many older people in same-sex relationships will be precluded from Social Security entitlements under pension and allowance income and assets tests due to their partner’s income and assets, despite the fact that historically they have had no or limited rights to other entitlements (including taxation, employer, disability, superannuation and insurance entitlements) because their status as a partner was not recognised. Given that the raft of reforms the Government has now introduced has come too late to affect their accrual of such entitlements; it is unjust and unfair that older people now bear the effects of the disadvantageous aspects of the reforms.
    Financial planning and accruing assets to fund retirement is a long term strategy. Older people in or nearing retirement, now have little or no chance to rearrange finances. They have not had the benefits of relationship recognition in their working life to assist in accruing assets & now the rules have been shifted under their feet in retirement or at the 11th hour. This is unfair and unjust as many of those effected have no capacity to pick themselves up and move on. There is not even any phase in period.
    This is in marked contrast to the situation when many Social Security payments for women were phased out, when Social Security legislation in the past also caught up with social change.
    When new claims for Widow Pension and Partner Allowance were made unavailable, those payments were retained for older widows, divorcees and separated women whose adult life was one of financial dependency on their partner, with no or limited accrual of superannuation entitlements during periods of employment.
    Similarly, when the Age Pension eligibility age for women was raised from 60 years to 65 years in 1995 in response to changing societal values about women’s increased labour market participation and reduced dependence on their partners, that modest increase in age eligibility was to be phased in over some 20 years.
    The last reforms to the Disability Support Pension (15 to 30 hours eligibility) grand parented those pensioners eligible under the 15 hour test.
    There is a particular need for savings provisions for older people who would be adversely affected by the Social Security amendments. Members of same sex couples have lived until now with certain societal limitations and their own particular expectations. That is vastly different from a person in their twenties who may now enter into a gay or lesbian relationship expecting equality before the law, and acknowledging their relationship’s ‘de facto’ status and presenting the relationship as such to family, friends, colleagues, employers, the Australian Tax Office, their superannuation fund, Medicare, etc.
    There are also a number of older gay men in particular who are on DSP because of chronic illness associated with HIV. Many of these people take a number of medications to stay alive. The loss of the DSP and the healthcare card could well be a death blow to some force many with chronic conditions further into poverty and have even more adverse health outcomes.
    Older gay and lesbian couples have lived and worked anticipating their relationships will not be recognised under Social Security law and without any expectation of equality before the law generally. They have had no expectation of forced financial inter-dependency via recognition of their couple status under Social Security law. To apply Social Security means tests to people who have long been disadvantaged before the law is effectively doubling their experience of discrimination.
    There is no good social policy reason for the government to take this approach and to effectively punish those with chronic illnesses or older gay and lesbians in or approaching retirement. This is not equality for older same sex couples: this is discrimination twice over.
    I also note that Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report Same-Sex: Same Entitlements and the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry into the Bill recommended that ” the Government give further consideration to what administrative or regulatory mechanisms may be available to appropriately manage the impact of the reforms on same-sex couples who may have benefits reduced under the changes”.
    Cabinet chose to not give any further consideration to those issues and recommendations, particularly for older people, in what would be seen by many as a spiteful and mean-spirited act.
    Mechanisms need to be implemented for people older than 55 in same sex relationships to not be regarded as de facto couples for Social Security purposes.

  27. Imagine that for the past twenty years (I am in my forties), you had been told by Centrelink and its predecessors that they do not recognise same-sex relationships, and that even though you had declared you relationship time and time again, you were repeatedly told “we don’t recognise…” and never once were you advised to prepare for things to change. And that you formed, then, a financially independent lifestyle and a relationship that was based on an expectation of financial independence, where separate finances were maintained even over a period of nearly a decade. Imagine further that you undertook financial obligations, such as a mortgage,and having children, based on having separate stable incomes, which you understood to be secure. And that you began a university course, while staying at home to raise kids. And that now, with absoluted no warning you are losing you financial independence, cannot afford the morgage, are having your relationship put under enormous stress because neither party is interested in being financial entwined with the other, will have to return to part time work and put the kids in childcare (which also now becomes three times more expensive once benefits are lost) and give up the university course (having spent thousands and thousands of dollars on it already. Then you might see why this change is unfair. It simply is not enough notice for people making life choices based on understandings of entitlements. What is their rush? Centrelink has not even written to the people on its books who previously declared same-sex relationships, but has left us to find out from the media, giving me, personally, just eight months to completely alter my life and plans for the next five years. There will also be a tremdous financial cost, something we would not have incurred if given three years notice, or similar.

  28. Lucy dont rush back, simple let them wait til your ready sure they wont come sheet sniffing…….beppie doesnt matter for him he’s single anyhow, he wont be touched financially, pftttttttttttt to it all

  29. The stupid here (I’m skimming over any part of the thread involving ;;;;) is the proposition that two people on a subsistence-level Centrelink payment who HAVE SEX suddenly should get that docked by the government. It’s long been stupid that it applied to heterosexual people; it’s just as stupid that they’re now trying to apply it to gay people.

  30. I’m happy there’s progress with the laws. but I don’t want to be defacto I want to get married.
    I have been in receipt of a disability support pension since before I met my current partner. We are about to lose over $200 a week, our renthas risen $100 per week in the last eight months, we can’t afford to move, we care for elderly parents and a disabled niece. I don’t know what to do or who to speak to, we haveno future. I appreciate the laws have to be pulled into line but they’re really not and we are very frightened. I havejust begun studying and now can’t afford to continue after getting finance for a computer and buying all of my books. I’m 41, my partner is 46 and we have no hope and very soon no home. My partner doesn’t earn enough to support both of us. They are the facts. We are totally lost. For some it’s not about money it’s about survival.

  31. We held a public forum here in Adelaide and the place was packed, people were all worried, anxious and decidedly uninformed, hardly a surprise given centrelink have yet to properly inform anyone about anything, this when the changes are still slated to kick in July 1 2009.
    The speaker from the welfare rights centre was magnificent, Marg Riley.
    She have out information in piles, she responded to questions from desperate and worried people and she reassured people that in the midst of this appallingly unfair treatment by government that welfare rights are at least there to provide support and assistance.
    My advice to everyone is to go to welfare rights, google welfare rights network / services and a map of oz comes up, talk with them FIRST about your situation, and get informed, do this BEFORE approaching centrelink or calling their useless waste of taxpayers same sex hotline.
    Then TOGETHER as a couple make decisions about what to do.
    Do not despair, we are still hounding the govt about this and we will NOT give up, how dare they do this to us after lifetimes of victimisation and discrimination. Cash cow. Keep strong.

  32. What so many people do not understand is that to “give equality” to a formerly disadvantaged group, by suddenly making across the board changes does not result in real equality. As shown in some of the blogs here & in many real live stories, lesbians & gay men’s lives have been disadvantaged & many – esp. older – cannot catch up & be equal in a mere few years. Protections and provisions have to be made to enable outcomes to approach equality. It’s the difference between “formal equality” and “substantive equality”. Not such difficult concepts really. So please avoid the simplistic quip – “now you’re equal with hetero de factos you’ll have to wear it”. Older gays and lesbians didn’t have a level playing field and their lives have not had the legal, social and often personal supports to enable them to benefit from quick fix “equal treatment” laws.


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