Pre-budget predictions of the cost of extending spousal benefits to same-sex couples in areas like superannuation, tax and social security, put the figure at a staggering $100 million a year for the next four years.
This was in line with Howard-Government estimates of $1 billion over the next ten years.
I feared this figure would spark a post-Budget backlash from commentators keen to play on the old “rich and greedy” gay stereotype. I was all prepared to point out that the $100 million is actually re-imbursement to gay and l-sbian taxpayers and superannuation contributors of funds that are rightfully theirs.
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But in last night’s Budget the Government declared that the removal of discrimination “is expected to result in net savings of $66.0 million over four years”. Why is there such a great disparity? Did the Howard Government inflate the figures to stifle support for reform?
Has the Rudd Government revised downward Treasury’s estimate of the numbers of same-sex couples in Australia, or revised upward the number of same-sex partners who will lose unemployment benefits, family allowances and disability pensions when their relationships are recognised?
Does the new figure only account for savings in social security, and not, say, long-term costs related to the Commonwealth’s unfunded superannuation liability? Or is legal equity actually something which is a bonus for the Budget as well as human rights?
If it’s true that fairer legal treatment of same-sex partners will save the Government $66 million by 2012, much of that windfall will come from cutting benefits to low-income lesbian mothers and gay men with HIV, people who are already struggling.
The right thing to do with that money is to channel it back into tackling some of the severe disadvantages faced by same-s-x attracted Australians. We know that health and educational outcomes are reduced by the anti-gay prejudice and violence still too common in our society.
Rates of verbal and physical assault, early school leaving, workplace discrimination, self-hatred, self-harm and suicide are all higher for gay, l-sbian, bis-xual and transgender Australians. We know from independent evaluation and verification that there are programs which effectively reduce this high level of prejudice, discrimination and violence.
But these programs cost money and, despite its commitment to social inclusion, the Commonwealth is spending next-to-nothing on them.
State Labor Governments have led with the way, with Victoria making specific Budget allocations in health, NSW in anti-violence and Tasmania in education.
After a decade of neglect, it’s time for the Federal Government to build on these effective social inclusion initiatives with the money it says it has saved by taking the first step toward legal equality.