Same-sex partners in the ACT will gain identical legal rights to married couples if they take advantage of a landmark civil unions scheme expected to take effect there next year.

Under the planned laws -“ due to be introduced into parliament in March -“ gay and lesbian couples would be able to create a formal domestic partnership before an authorised celebrant or the ACT registrar-general.

The ACT Labor government announced plans for Australia’s first civil unions legislation to a standing ovation from activists in Canberra last Friday.

These laws will extend a basic social and legal right to a new group of individuals, ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope said.

Same-sex couples in the ACT already have legal equality with heterosexual de facto couples, but do not have the same rights as married partners in some areas, such as the law of wills.

Civil union will deliver real, functional equality under ACT law for couples who either do not have access to the Commonwealth Marriage Act or who prefer not to marry, Stanhope said.

This includes opposite-sex couples and transgender and intersex Canberrans.

The ACT scheme will be modelled on the civil unions system that took effect in New Zealand earlier this year.

Tasmania already allows gay and lesbian couples to register their relationships under legislation passed in 2003, but the recognition is symbolic and open only to residents of the state.

The ACT laws would allow people from other states and territories to form civil unions, although these would not be binding elsewhere.

A civil union will end if at least one partner gives a month’s notice in writing to the registrar-general.

The Stanhope government, which has a strong record of progressive law reform, opted for civil unions over the other two reform options identified in a discussion paper earlier this year: relationship registration and marriage.

About half of the 400 respondents to the discussion paper opposed recognition of same-sex relationships. In an apparent concession to the anti-gay reform sentiment, Stanhope stressed last week the new civil unions system would not infringe upon traditional marriage.

Nerida Cole, a spokesperson for Canberra gay and lesbian law reform group Good Process, said activists had hoped for both marriage and civil unions.

It would have been great if we got that, but we’ll try and be pragmatic about it as well, she told Sydney Star Observer.

But there were doubts about the constitutional validity of state-based marriage, and civil unions would also bring tangible benefits.

That’s what we pressed the government to have: a scheme that actually meant something and wasn’t just a bit of paper.

We’re pretty pleased that it’s civil unions.

Activist Rodney Croome said the ACT announcement came at a time of extraordinary developments for Australian gay and lesbian law reform.

Changes to Australian Defence Force regulations to give same-sex partners of servicepeople more rights took place on 1 December.

It really has been a couple of extraordinary developments that can only bode well for the future of LGBT rights in Australia, Croome said.

What this announcement does is it firmly puts the need for formal recognition of same-sex relationships on the political agenda [around Australia].

NSW activists could use the ACT reforms to strengthen the case for further relationship recognition, Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convenor David Scamell told the Star.

What we can take from this now is that we can point to an example, he said.

We had Tasmania and now we have ACT [showing] the fact that we can have a de facto and a civil union registration scheme, so why shouldn’t we also have marriage?

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