New rights for Australian gay and lesbian couples approved by Senate

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Legislators in Australia have voted to grant equal rights for same-sex couples in areas such as taxation, healthcare and retirement benefits.

The Senate voted in favour of amendments to around 100 laws, but there will be no gay marriage.

The House of Representatives will now vote on the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws— General Law Reform) Bill 2008–, which has cross-party support.

Senator Penny Wong, who is gay, presented the legislation in the Senate.

In December Ms Wong was appointed minister for water and climate change by Prime Minister Rudd.

The 39-year-old lawyer was the first Asian-born person to become a Cabinet minister as well as the first out gay person of either sex.

Ms Wong told the Senate that social security and family assistance entitlements will commence in July 2009.

“The majority of amendments, including amendments to the Australian government superannuation schemes, would commence after passage, and amendments to the Medicare and PBS safety nets would commence on 1 January 2009,” she said.

At present same-sex couples and families get fewer leave entitlements, less workers’ compensation, fewer tax concessions, fewer veterans’ entitlements, fewer health care subsidies, less superannuation and pay more for residential care than opposite-sex couples in the same circumstances.

In May the Labour federal government was accused of “playing to the politics of the extreme right religious lobby” after it forced the country’s Capital Territory (ACT) government to water down plans to legally recognise same-sex couples.

The ACT authorities wanted to establish ceremonies at which gay and lesbian couples could formally register their relationships.

The federal Attorney General warned the ACT legislature that he would not accept “legislation that mimics marriage” and threatened to use his power to overturn any such legislation.

The legislature instead passed a law allowing for the registration of same-sex couples without the ceremony.

The ACT becomes the third of eight Australian states and territories to recognise same-sex partnerships.

In 2004, under former Prime Minister John Howard, federal legislation banning same-sex marriage was passed.

Some had hoped that the defeat of Mr Howard and the Liberals in November 2007 and the election of a Labour government might move the debate about gay marriage forward.

In fact, while Labour has decided to tackle legal inequities between gay and straight couples, it maintains that marriage is only between a man and a woman.