The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) will move to strengthen its civil unions scheme so gay and lesbian couples can formally declare their legal partnership before a civil celebrant.

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell said the new legislation, tabled in Parliament today, will restore the 2006 Civil Unions Act which was overturned by the Howard Government for “mimicking marriage”.

“We’re restating our position and our principles, which have been on the table since 2006,” Corbell said, The Canberra Times reported.

“We’re saying it is the same as marriage in the same way as heterosexual de facto relationships are treated the same as marriage.”

The ACT introduced civil partnerships in 2008, but after pressure from the Rudd Government same-sex couples were required to notify the territory’s registrar-general of their union in advance.

At the time ACT gay rights advocates were unhappy with the forced changes, saying the legislation had been watered down, and although same-sex couples could hold a ceremony before a celebrant, their relationship was recognised outside that celebration.

The move could reignite tensions between the Gillard Government and the ACT. Despite recent changes to federal veto powers, federal Parliament can still override ACT legislation.

The bill is likely to be passed by the ACT’s Parliament, supported by the Greens who have welcomed the proposed changes.

ACT Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury said although the Greens support the legislation, the issue must not distract from debate on changing the federal Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry.

“The announcement that there will be more steps taken along the road to equality is welcome news,” Rattenbury said.

“However, we do not want debate at the ACT level to detract or distract in any way from the important discussion at the federal level about marriage equality.

“Federal legislation must be the priority and we will bear that in mind when looking at this bill from the ACT Government.”

Debate on the bill has been adjourned until the ACT Assembly resumes in 2012.

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