Equality for gay couples seemed a like a good idea, and it was, for the younger Gay and Lesbian advocates who had grown up post illegality of same s-x relationships. So the recent changes to the swag of 100 plus bits of Commonwealth law were celebrated as a good sign of changing times. And they were, but they failed to take into account the effects the changes in the Social Security area would have on cohabiting aged pensioners.

The young enthusiasts failed to demand and for some reason the Government failed to supply, the same protections to existing recipients (grandfathering) that have followed all other such changes. So a range of older “couples” will lose their individual eligibility for an age pension on July 1. Some may lose all their income and suddenly become a “dependent”. Others who are deemed a pensioner couple with lose $185.20 per fortnight.

This last case raises gender differences: for some fairly affluent mainly older male partners, like Michael Kirby’s long term partner, being able to claim a legitimate share of super was long overdue; for other duos, more likely to be female, a lifetime of low pay, maybe time out for children and care and no super, means no extra income but the pension.

These suffered discrimination and fear, and now are not only likely to lose money and frightened they may be “outed” by investigating Centrelink officers to family and neighbours who still think they are just good friends. For some, the changes will be an emotional mine field and a disaster.

Defining de facto relationships in heteros-xual couples is not simple. Adding same s-x couples to Centrelink’s already problematic practices will create a new set of problems. Where people marry and register relationships, they make a clear contract to merge resources but when there is no legal contract or even public acknowledgement, the Government takes on the power to declare coupledom in order to save money.

There are already wider questions on assumptions about partnerships and sharing with many complaints to Centrelink, the AAT and the Ombudsman about Centrelink staff. These have to interpret the legislation by defining interdependence through a series of social, emotional and financial indicia, none of which are definitive, including s-xual activity. So long term close friendships with some shared housing and other costs but no s-x may qualify.

For people who have never seen themselves publicly, and sometimes not even privately, as a couple, being “married” by Centrelink decree may cause deep trauma. I know some older women who have suffered the double jeopardy of a lifetime of prejudice against them as women and as lesbians.

They are deeply distressed by the possibility of being investigated if they don’t declare, as well as maybe losing their independent income. Where one is still in the workforce, the other may have to become her dependent, even though they have never made any such agreement and have had no couple benefits.

The problem is who is likely to be affected negatively. It is the least advantaged who wear the costs, not those who lobbied for the changes while ignoring gender and other inequalities within the Gay and Lesbian groupings.

Now there is an awareness amongst gay groups of the need to exclude the older retired people from the immediate effects of the changes, but they are finding some Government members surprisingly resistant to adding a Grandfathering clause.

Why does the present legislation fail to include the usual practice of grandfathering existing recipients as the government has done in other changes to social security payments? Interestingly, some of the Opposition members are indicating some support.

So the question is why won’t the Rudd government agree to doing what even Howard did for earlier payment changes such as for sole parents?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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