The ACT government today announced it will introduce civil unions for same-sex couples, making it the first government in Australia to do so.

The announcement in parliament was met with wild applause and a standing ovation, ABC News reported.

Chief Minister John Stanhope said the civil union laws would give gay couples the same legal rights as those enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts.

These laws will extend a basic social and legal right to a new group of individuals, he said.

This includes opposite-sex couples and transgender and intersex Canberrans. Partners to a civil union will have the same legal recognition under ACT law as married couples.

This will not diminish or erode a right that is already held by the bulk of the population.

The ACT’s new laws are more far-reaching than those of Tasmania, which has a registration scheme for same-sex couples.

A spokesperson for ACT gay rights group Good Process said the laws should come into effect by March 2006 and the scheme would be open to non-ACT residents as well.

Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group spokesperson, Rodney Croome, said he was pleased the new ACT system would provide for official ceremonies and not include a residency requirement.

Same-sex couples from across Australia will flock to Canberra for official certification and celebration of their unions, Croome said.

Meantime, South Africa’s top court has told the country’s parliament to change marriage laws to include same-sex couples.

The constitutional court ruled on Thursday that definitions of marriage as being between a man and a woman were inconsistent with South Africa’s constitution, which protects gay rights, Associated Press reported.

The court said parliament should change the law within a year, or the court would make the amendment itself.

The judgment raises the possibility South Africa will become the fifth country to legally endorse same-sex marriage.

Kelly Pilgrim-Byrne, spokesperson for Australian Coalition for Equality, said pressure was now mounting on the Howard Government to recognise same-sex spouses in areas like taxation, social security, Medicare and veteran’s entitlements.

Important advances in South Africa, the ACT and the Australian Defence Force make the partnership provisions in most Australian federal laws look like they’ve been in a time capsule, Pilgrim-Byrne said.

It’s time for federal law to catch up with local and international law, and most importantly, public opinion.

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