The government has been accused of backing down from its promise to remove anti-gay discrimination from federal law after attorney-general Philip Ruddock said existing laws already offered adequate protection.

Ruddock made the comments in a letter to Doug Pollard, editor of gay newspaper Melbourne Star. The attorney-general was writing in response to an email from Pollard in May about the government’s planned veto of the ACT’s civil unions law. That legislation was overruled in June.

The Australian government condemns discrimination in all its forms, including discrimination on the basis of sexuality, Ruddock said in the letter.

However, he wrote, The government does not believe that same-sex relationships have the same character as marriages and therefore considers that they should not be given the same legal and community status as marriage.

The government believes that existing measures create a legal and policy framework that adequately addresses discrimination on the basis of sexuality.

Sydney Star Observer understands other people who wrote to Ruddock about ACT civil unions received similar letters.

His letter to Pollard drew an angry response from activists who said it undermined the government’s claims it wanted to remove discrimination.

Last December prime minister John Howard said he was strongly in favour -¦ of removing any property and other discrimination that exists against people who have same-sex relationships.

He made a similar statement after the veto of the ACT civil unions legislation this year.

Rod Swift, from gay lobby group Australian Coalition for Equality, claimed Ruddock’s letter showed the government was not committed to removing inequality.

There is no movement forward. There has been actually a bit of a back-pedal here, Swift told the Star.

It’s just one big unfortunate play on words by the federal government.

Swift said the attorney-general’s letter was also worrying because it suggested the Commonwealth would not implement recommendations expected from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s discrimination inquiry.

The inquiry is currently examining financial and work-related discrimination against people in same-sex relationships and is due to report to the attorney-general by early next year.

A spokesperson for Ruddock denied the government would automatically reject HREOC’s findings.

I think the government will have an open mind when it comes to the HREOC inquiry, the spokesperson said.

To do otherwise would be an insult to the inquiry.

Earlier this year Howard banned all government departments from making submissions to the inquiry.

A HREOC spokesperson said it was too soon to comment on the possible government reaction to their findings.

However, another national gay activist, Rodney Croome, said Ruddock’s letter implied the government would not consider law reform for same-sex couples until the next federal election, expected in 2007.

Philip Ruddock’s letter left me with the very strong impression that the government doesn’t intend to support or even allow this kind of substantial reform at least before the next election, Croome told the Star.

That is completely unacceptable because we know that there is still grave discrimination in many areas of federal law against same-sex relationships.

Croome said the prospects of the government accepting the HREOC recommendations or allowing a conscience vote on Liberal MP Warren Entsch’s planned gay equality bill looked increasingly grim.

[But] the HREOC inquiry remains really important because those findings will be just as relevant to the next government, whatever it may be.

In the same way, if it does not pass now, Warren Entsch’s initiative will remain an inspiration for others who are still in the [Liberal] party and fighting hard on these issues.

Ruddock’s spokesperson declined to comment on the planned Entsch bill.

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