Tasmanian Liberal senator Guy Barnett has used a meeting of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee to attack the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) for supporting relationship equality, and questioned its funding.

AHRC president Catherine Branson was appearing before the committee to answer questions about a $12 million commitment by the federal Government towards human rights education when Barnett veered onto the topic of same-sex marriage.

Barnett grilled Branson on an AHRC recommendation to a UN review of human rights in Australia in January that the Australian Government do what it could to ensure equality of marriage rights for all Australians. He asked three times if the AHRC supported same-sex marriage.

Branson replied that the AHRC believed in non-discrimination on the grounds of sexuality in relationship recognition.

“Whatever formal recognition there is of relationships, it should be available both for same-sex couples and heterosexual couples,” she said.

When pressed if the AHRC wanted the Marriage Act changed, Branson said the commission did not have an opinion on the Act and theoretically the same outcome could be achieved by replacing civil marriage with civil unions.

Barnett later called on the agriculture, fisheries and forests minister, Senator Joe Ludwig, to rule out abolishing the Marriage Act. He asked if Ludwig was concerned that the AHRC was expressing a view contrary to that of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and to that established when Parliament banned same-sex marriage in 2004.

Barnett then questioned the AHRC receiving taxpayers’ money to educate the community about human rights when its view was that “marriage … should be non-discriminatory”.

Ludwig told Barnett that the AHRC was ”an independent statutory agency”.

“That is entirely appropriate.”

In related news, senior Labor Party (ALP) members have recommended the party get behind same-sex marriage.

Last week The Australian newspaper reported leaked details of the ALP’s internal review that show calls for the party to support gay marriage and to show greater leadership on climate change to win back votes lost at the last federal election.

“In particular, [the report] argues that Labor must develop a specific strategy to target voters lost to the Greens by advocating action on climate change and support for gay marriage, and to improve communication of Labor’s ‘history of successful progressive reform’ in targeted seats,” The Australian reported.

The review was commissioned by the ALP’s national executive last September, following Labor’s federal election near loss, to help rebuild the party’s support base.

The issue of same-sex marriage is likely to be hotly debated at the ALP National Conference later this year.

Gillard has consistently stated her opposition to overturning the ban on same-sex marriage in Australia.

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