Queensland deputy premier Andrew Fraser has introduced a bill to recognise civil unions in Queensland.
Like many social conservatives I have concerns about this bill. But I’m not just a social conservative — I’m a gay-rights campaigner.
A civil union is an interesting concept. It has no meaning under federal law.
Under Queensland’s proposed legislation a couple can opt to register their relationship.
In exchange for a couple of statutory declarations, a form and a fee, the state will issue a certificate of union. Their relationship rights will already be covered as a de facto relationship, and aside from that certificate there will be no statutory distinction between a de facto relationship and a civil union.
Dissolving the union can be done by court order or simply by marrying someone else.
Fraser’s proposal is not a Government bill — it is a private member’s bill. Queensland’s Legislative Assembly has set aside two hours each Thursday afternoon to debate such business. Many private members bills (like a proposal to introduce daylight savings in Queensland) have been on the agenda for years and still haven’t reached the top of the pile.
The debate in the Legislative Assembly was about suspending those rules so Fraser’s bill could be voted on before the last sitting, scheduled for November. Why? Where is the urgency?
There are two alternatives: this bill is either very clever electioneering or it represents a genuine attempt to do the “right” thing.
The Bligh Government is in trouble. After 13 years there is a sense of ‘It’s Time’ building in parts of the community.
Bligh’s personal approval rating even reached below 25 percent before the Queensland floods. News poll after news poll shows that this is going to be a very tight election and it has even been suggested that Katter’s Australia Party may hold the balance of power in Queensland.
Fraser’s seat (the tree-lined, inner-west, upper-middle-class suburb of Mt Coot-tha) is seen as at risk. Former ABC presenter Andrew Carroll (now a member of the Greens) has been a strong campaigner.
Fraser is carrying personal baggage too — he is treasurer of a state that no longer enjoys a AAA credit rating. Rumours abound that Bligh will call a snap election either before Christmas or early next year with the former Brisbane Lord Mayor, Campbell Newman, running a campaign to become premier from outside the Parliament.
Australian Marriage Equality published a Galaxy Poll showing that the ALP’s primary vote could improve by 5 percent if they supported gay marriage, but this was a federal poll so it is unclear if those results would apply to the state election.
While the civil union bill amends 42 Acts, it leaves one piece of state-based discrimination in place. Every homosexual couple in Queensland is automatically disqualified from adoption.
Even if Fraser’s bill passes, the law in Queensland will still maintain this discriminatory restriction. This is the most obvious clue that the civil union bill is blatant electioneering on behalf of the Bligh Government.
And, the amazing thing is that Newman (on record as supporting full marriage equality for homosexual couples) fell for it! If the LNP had allowed a conscience vote on civil unions, the ALP’s wedge would have failed.
Those members’ seats at risk from Katter’s party would have been able to vote against a meaningless legislative measure, and those who wanted to show support to the gay community could have done so.
Even the most conservative member could have argued that a civil union is a symbol that won’t actually change anything, except the number of certificates issued by the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. The bill only adds “or civil union” right after “de facto relationship” in most state-based laws (except for adoption rights).
It is possible, however, that this isn’t a wedge. Bligh and Fraser are both very intelligent. They might see the writing on the wall for this Government and they may want to leave a positive legacy that will help push the idea of gay marriage forward.
Fraser’s speech when introducing the act was full of commitment and compassion. It might be a way of helping the gay marriage cause long-term, by showing society that the world will not end if homosexuals have a certificate from their government acknowledging their relationship.
I have concerns about implementing civil unions in Queensland. The first is that it is effectively a register of de facto relationships. In time it might be argued that de facto relationships are not valid unless registered.
While most judges in Australia are sensible, my fear is that a judge might decide to follow the legal axiom “if it is not explicitly included, it is implicitly excluded” and rule that a domestic relationship did not exist because it was not registered. This could potentially strip protections away from all de facto couples, not just homosexuals who wait for ‘marriage proper’.
History has shown clearly that separate but equal is never equal. The fundamental injustice of excluding people from an institution because they are different remains.
Obviously a state government can’t override the federal Marriage Act, but Bligh has been the ALP’s national president for nearly a year. What has she done to counter the factional powerbrokers like Joe de Bruyn or to rebuke John Murphy and “Don’t Meddle With Marriage”?
Regardless of the motivation behind the bill’s sudden urgency, I do welcome this step forward. Having read Fraser’s speech it seems his heart is in the right place.
Frankly, though, we are kidding ourselves if we believe it is going to actually change anything.
By JAMES NEWBURRIE
INFO: James Newburrie is an openly gay IT specialist living in Bob Katter’s electorate. Somewhere along the way he became a gay activist. Follow him on Twitter: @DifficultNerd