"[On] the question of [civil unions] legislation ... it's always been our view, as the Labor Party, [that] that lies properly within the prerogative of the states, and that remains our position." This was then opposition leader, now PM, Kevin Rudd's view quoted by ABC News on December 7. It was a promise that, unlike the Howard Coalition government, federal Labor would not overturn civil unions legislation in the ACT.
On May 3, federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland threatened to do exactly that unless the ACT Legislative Assembly removed the part of its proposed civil unions law that allowed same-sex couples the right to hold an official ceremony. The ACT Assembly backed down, passing its amended legislation on May 8.
The new law does not allow for official ceremonies. It also includes a new requirement that one partner must be an ACT resident. This brings the ACT into line with relationship registry schemes in Tasmania and Victoria.
It also means that the ACT is in line with Labor Party policy, which accepts registry schemes and de facto rights, but not same-sex ceremonies or marriage.
More than 100 federal laws that discriminate against same-sex de facto couples are set to be repealed in June. The Greens plan to move an amendment for same-sex marriage as these changes are passed through parliament.
Green Left Weekly spoke to activists Rodney Croome, Rachel Evans and Gabrielle Hitch about these events.
Hitch, who represents the ACT-based Campaign for Civil Unions (CCU), criticised what she described as the "federal [government] strong arming" of the ACT government, as well as its "blatant homophobia and political inconsistency". For Hitch, it represented "a broader assault on the territory's sovereignty and democratic processes". Hitch said that the CCU was also "disappointed" by the ACT government's concessions in the bill, adding that "the pursuit of recognition, rights and acceptance is one that will only grow larger and louder".
Asked about the influence of the Christian right in the ALP,
Rodney Croome, a long-term gay rights activist, told GLW he could identify two distinct currents. "One is the evangelicals, represented by groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby, [which] claims an immense electoral influence it doesn't actually have. The other is the Catholic church working behind the scenes through some unions and ALP factions. These people don't like each other much, but they are brought together by a shared loathing of LGBT [lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual] people."
For Rachel Evans, an activist in Sydney-based Community Action Against Homophobia, those groups only campaigning for de facto rights are "asking for too little".
She told GLW that, "The movement should demand full equality — equal marriage rights and civil unions with ceremonies. Given that Rudd is introducing national de facto rights for same-sex couples, we need to be calling even louder for civil unions with ceremonies and marriage."
Croome said Australia is now "well behind" other countries in its recognition of the rights of same-sex couples. "Many people hoped a Rudd government would help us catch up, but on same-sex marriage he is maintaining the same 'Fortress Australia' mentality."
The federal government is using the Tasmanian relationship registry model to justify what it is doing to civil unions in the ACT. For Hitch, "the federal government can use apocalyptic signs or rings in cornfields to justify its decision and it won't mean a thing because it's simply unjustifiable".
Hitch said that the Tasmanian registry system was developed with support from the Tasmanian LGBTI community. "The model is a highly innovative and inspired approach. However, [popular] support in the ACT has never moved from the civil unions model."
Asked whether he viewed the ACT government's concession on civil unions as a blow to the LGBTI movement, Croome replied, "It's tragic that the ACT Assembly cannot have the laws it wants, and same-sex couples can't have the recognition they want. But the silver lining is that the nation's attention has been focused on marriage discrimination like never before."
Referring to the federal government's pressure on the ACT government Hitch said, "such overt displays of lively homophobia can motivate people, and it will again".
"The queer community has a history of oppression, marginalisation, inflicted violence and discrimination but we never went away, we never stopped fighting and loving and looking to the future, and we'll fight through this too", Hitch concluded.