BY BEN KEATS

This month will see a new era of equality before the law for Australia’s LGBT community. For the first time in Australian history, the federal Government has removed discrimination against same-sex couples across a myriad of pieces of federal legislation.
The passing of the Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws -” General Law Reform) Act 2008, and other laws, grants same-sex couples and their children equality in almost all significant federal laws for the first time.
The NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby is delighted to see the tremendous benefits these reforms deliver for same-sex couples in Australia. We have known for years that the broader community supports equality for same-sex couples. It is great to see the federal Government finally catch up and recognise that all love is truly equal.
More than 1000 people responded to the Lobby’s 58’08 campaign by writing personal heartfelt stories of discrimination and support for the reforms which we delivered to the Commonwealth Attorney-General.
Without these letters the GLRL would have found it much more difficult to gain the support required to see the passage of these reforms. We say thank you to all those who wrote letters demanding these reforms.
The importance of these changes cannot be understated. Many of the 84 laws have already commenced and some will start on 1 July this year. The laws which have been amended include Medicare, Superannuation, Industrial Relations, Immigration, Workers Compensation and Veterans Affairs.

This means that:
-¢ People living with chronic illnesses and/or have to see doctors regularly will have access to the family Medicare Safety Net threshold. Similarly, couples who need regular medications will now be able to apply to be covered by the PBS Safety Net as a couple. This means that once a couple’s expenditure reaches a threshold, prescriptions are subsidised for the remainder of the calendar year.
-¢ In the workplace, same-sex couples are now included in the definition of -˜de facto partner’. This change sees entitlements like carer’s leave and compassionate leave extended to those in same-sex partnerships for the first time.
-¢ For tax returns for the 2009-“2010 financial year, same-sex couples receive the same tax treatment as married or opposite-sex de facto couples.
-¢ The discrimination we have faced in relation to superannuation benefits has affected not only those in same-sex couples, but also the children of same-sex couples. The new laws will ensure same-sex couples (and their children) have access to contribution splitting and their partner’s superannuation and superannuation death benefits.
-¢ In the area of immigration same-sex couples will now have broader access to partner visas and citizenship.

These are just some of the changes the new laws will bring.

The next step on the road to equality is to make sure members of our community can easily access the new rights and benefits available to us. The Lobby’s community forums and surveys have shown that while many in our community have a good understanding of their new rights, others do not. Together, we have fought hard to end discrimination, but the first step in protecting these new rights is to ensure we understand and use them.

The GLRL, with the assistance of a grant from Sydney City Council, has created a rights checklist so you can get your head around the paperwork and make sure you utilise the benefits you’re entitled to: visit glrl.org.au.

Also available are easily printable factsheets on all the significant areas of reform.

The GLRL will also hold information nights on the reforms in the next couple of months. We will advertise these shortly. In the meantime we strongly urge everybody to visit our website to ensure you know your new rights.

While we can all share in the celebration of the removal of much discrimination, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that inequality still exists.

These law changes haven’t only brought good news: there are those for whom these changes will bring serious disadvantage. The Lobby is disappointed that the Government ignored our longstanding calls for a fair implementation of the social security reforms.

The federal Government’s decision not to allow at least greater time for the implementation of the social security reforms will see significant hardship, specifically in the area of pensions and single parent payments.

In response to concerns from affected members of the community, the GLRL had lobbied the Government to allow those who might suffer the most serious disadvantage to be given sufficient time to rearrange their finances. This was as far back as 2006 -” when we were talking to the Howard
Government about law reforms we feared might be in the distant future -” as well as in our policy briefing papers and Government inquiry submissions since then.

While the Rudd Government moved pleasingly swiftly to redress the inequality in treatment of same-sex relationships in general, this Government’s hasty consultation process means it ignored our concerns and those of many others.

It is true that some of this disadvantage may be offset by tax or other benefits but there will be some in the community who will be caught short and significantly out of pocket. Government bodies, such as
Centrelink, must take a sensitive approach to the reforms, and not adopt harsh penalties especially in light of the fact many will still not be aware of the reforms and their new reporting responsibilities.

We encourage anyone who thinks they might be adversely affected to seek expert legal advice from the Welfare Rights Centre NSW.

There is no doubt these law reforms represent the most significant advance of LGBT rights in the history of Australia beyond decriminalisation. We are amazed to see Government postcards advertising the changes with the catchphrase -˜Couples are Couples’. It’s a great slogan -” however, we are yet to achieve full equality for our relationships.

Couples won’t be equal couples in Australia until civil marriage is available for all same-sex couples. The
GLRL will soon launch its civil marriage campaign to ensure full relationship equality becomes a reality.
This year marks 21 years for the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, and while we welcome these significant reforms, discrimination still exists. Therefore the GLRL’s work is not complete.

In NSW we still await the removal of adoption inequality in law, and for necessary surrogacy reform. Federally we need to continue to campaign for federal anti-discrimination protection, and formal relationship equality through civil marriage.

The passing of these laws do, however, mark a significant step towards full equality, and we thank our community and all the parliamentarians who supported these reforms.

The GLRL will continue to fight for equality, but we urge all members of the LGBT community to visit our website to ensure you are informed about your new rights.

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