The Australian Democrats are divided over whether to support a legislative amendment -“ opposed by the government -“ which would give same-sex couples equality in superannuation arrangements.

The amendment in question, which is affixed to the government’s Superannuation (Government Co-Contribution For Low Income Earners) Bill 2003, originated in the Senate and attracted the support of the Democrats, the ALP and the Greens when it was first debated. But the amendment was voted down in the House of Representatives on Monday in a 77 to 61 vote. It returned to the Senate last night but debate was adjourned and will not resume for at least two weeks.

Before the adjournment, Democrats superannuation spokesperson John Cherry indicated his support for the bill without the amendment, and outlined his intention to pursue law reform for same-sex couples in superannuation legislation via a different bill. Shortly afterwards, Democrats sexuality spokesperson Brian Greig commenced a speech on the bill, declaring that it would be a pity for the bill to be sunk -“ but if it does, the blame for that rests with the government and its ridiculous position on this issue, he said.

Senator Greig claimed that the government’s position on the same-sex couples amendment came directly from the prime minister’s office, because the prime minister had gone on record previously saying that the provision of equal rights to same-sex couples in superannuation law would lead to gay marriage.

It is unclear at this stage how the other Democrats senators will vote. Last week Greig told the Star he would not be voting for the bill unless it contained the amendment and it is believed Senator Natasha Stott Despoja has a similar intention.

The vote places the Democrats in a bind: previously, they have agreed to support the government’s bill, but, after spruiking their gay-and-lesbian-friendly policies over many years, many would argue that they have a moral obligation to support the bill only if it contains the amendment.

Labor parliamentarians have already begun criticising the Democrats on the issue.

On Monday, Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese accused the Democrats of betraying their constituency and of mind-boggling hypocrisy.

The Democrats have a history of posturing on the issue of same-sex law reform but failing to achieve any tangible results, he said in a media statement. For all their talk about the need for same-sex law reform, the Democrats, in this latest parliamentary debate, have engaged in gutless politics and sold out the very community they claim to represent.

The Democrats know they are in trouble because Brian Greig is on the record time after time talking about this issue and tonight he stands exposed for his hypocrisy, Albanese told the House of Representatives on Monday. He quoted last week’s Sydney Star Observer -“ a reference expressing Senator Greig’s hope that the credibility of the Democrats would not be damaged by the current furore -“ and answered it back, saying: Bad luck, Brian, because you are incredibly damaged by this sell-out.

Albanese was followed by Labor’s MP for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, who said the government saw the denial of rights to homosexual people as a vote winner.

I must say it really shocks me that the Democrats are prepared to be part of this hatchet job, Plibersek said. The Democrats want to pride themselves on protecting the interests of minority groups. To cave in to the government and not insist on amendments to protect the rights of same-sex couples, just so the government can pass on a tax cut to the wealthiest people in this community, seems absolutely bizarre to me. There has never been a better time for the Democrats to flex a bit of political muscle because we know the government is so desperate to get this legislation -“ these tax cuts for high income earners -“ through as it affects their base constituency so much. The Democrats really could have held out a bit longer and insisted on this amendment.

Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convenor Somali Cerise said it was unacceptable that the government continues to take this stance, particularly in the light of broad community support for this issue.

This clearly demonstrates that the Howard government is out of touch with the community, and definitely out of touch with the gay and lesbian community, she said.

The Lobby would be extremely disappointed if other Democrats senators voted for the bill without the amendment, Cerise said.

The Democrats are a party with a long history of taking a principled stand on gay and lesbian issues, she said. We expect an unwavering commitment.

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