The revelation prime minister Howard banned all government departments from making submissions to the inquiry into discrimination against same-sex couples has angered gay rights supporters.
The news is particularly provocative given Howard’s recent assurances he wanted to remove discrimination from federal law.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s national inquiry is investigating the discrimination same-sex couples experienced when it came to financial benefits and entitlements.
A spokesperson for attorney-general Philip Ruddock confirmed government ministers had discussed the inquiry and agreed to instruct their departments not to make submissions.
They argued since it was HREOC’s inquiry it should be left to HREOC to do its work, rather than the departments, the spokesperson told Sydney Star Observer.
However, most HREOC inquiries in the past had received submissions from government departments, a spokesperson for HREOC told the Star, including inquiries into the stolen generation, children in immigration detention and disabled employees.
ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope said it was curious, to the say the least for the government to issue a blanket instruction to its departments and agencies not to make submissions to a HREOC inquiry.
Particularly to an inquiry looking at an issue upon which the prime minister wants Australians to believe he is active, Stanhope said.
After overturning the ACT’s civil union legislation a fortnight ago, senior government figures were keen not to be considered homophobic, Stanhope believed.
When John Howard was asked if he supported same-sex couples having some of the same entitlements as married couples, he said he did.
I am in favour of removing areas of discrimination and we have, and I’m quite happy on a case-by-case basis to look at other areas where people believe there’s genuine discrimination, he said, The Australian Financial Review reported.
But that doesn’t mean you equate those relationships with marriage.
Howard made similar comments in December 2005, when he said he was strongly in favour … of removing any property and other discrimination that exists against people who have same-sex relationships.
This week shadow attorney-general Nicola Roxon said the prime minister had been caught out saying one thing to the public and another thing to public servants.
The pigheaded and unreasonable directive not to cooperate with HREOC shows Mr Howard’s true colours. He talks the talk on discrimination, but he walks in the opposite direction, she said.
Gay rights activists said the decision directly contradicted the prime minister’s recent statements.
They make noises that they want to remove discrimination, but act in a deceitful way to hinder investigations into the extent of that very discrimination, Rod Swift, from Coalition for Equality, said.
Government departments and agencies are acutely aware of the hundreds of laws and regulations that discriminate against same-sex couples. The Howard government clearly does not want the embarrassment of the exposure of this endemic discrimination.
And David Scamell, of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, was concerned that keeping government departments out of the inquiry would mean it wasn’t as thorough as it might have otherwise been.
The fact the Howard government has consistently taken funding from HREOC since he came into power means it doesn’t have the resources to undertake major investigations without assistance from other organisations, he said.