John Howard has now backed his Attorney-General’s attack
on the ACT’s same-sex civil union bill, claiming that ACT Chief
Minister Jon Stanhope’s proposal is an attack on the institution of
marriage.

“It provides for a ceremony and it presumes the availability of [federally licensed] marriage celebrants,” says the PM. “That seems to me, and I think it will seem to most Australians, to be marriage by another name.”

The
interesting irony here is that celebrants don’t exactly represent an
orthodox form of marriage. Civil marriage celebrants “were founded to
bring dignity into the lives of non-church and secular people”, says
Dally Messenger III, principal of the International College of
Celebrancy. “Non-believers were then a humiliated and subtly oppressed
minority.”

Most civil union schemes in other countries establish
a new legal relationship called a “civil union” alongside the existing
relationship category of “marriage”, says gay activist Rodney Croome.
“The ACT CU Bill is rare in making civil unions a sub-category of
marriage, which is something Howard will never accept.”

Stanhope
remains adamant the legislation will go ahead. “The ACT Government went
to the last election with a policy of investigating recognition of
same-sex unions and was re-elected with a historic majority,” he told
Crikey. “It is now delivering on that commitment.” But while he does
not believe that federal government “interference is appropriate at
all”, he says he will redraft the bill in an attempt to overcome their
objections.

In any case, says Stanhope, the ACT has been “quite clear that civil unions are not marriage
by another name”. But it has also been “equally clear that its
intention is to give civil unions equal protection under ACT law with
married couples”.

Stanhope is now in a similar position to San Francisco mayor, Gavin
Newsom, who in 2004 defied the Californian government by allowing
same-sex couples to marry, says Croome. Newsom was eventually stopped,
“but not before gay unions were solemnised, gay weddings celebrated,
gay families recognised, and all without the sky falling in”.

Christian Kerr writes:

If the Prime Minister and Attorney-General Philip Ruddock use
Commonwealth powers to throw a bucket of cold water over Stanhope’s
civil union proposal will it become a conscience vote issue?

“Same sex marriage” has been a wodgy wedge for the Howard Government.
It’s been too obviously pinched as an issue from the US and Federal
Labor has blocked efforts to split the party by taking a two blokes and
a cocker spaniel approach.

Yet it’s precisely the sort of issue that is traditionally given a
conscience vote. When the Commonwealth overruled the Northern
Territory’s euthanasia laws, that was a matter of conscience. And what
prospects for division exist within the Coalition? Queenslander Warren
Entsch has already flagged plans to sponsor a private member’s bill to
eradicate discrimination and the “inequities” faced by Australia’s gay
and lesbian population under federal law – and has some supporters.

Peter Fray

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