In a move apparently aimed at blunting criticism for its support of a government plan to outlaw gay marriage, Australia's opposition Labor Party said Tuesday that it would offer gay and unmarried couples enhanced rights in such areas as pensions and taxation.
The Labor Party has come under fire from gay rights activists for announcing that it will support the center-right government's amendments to the federal Marriage Act, which would ensure that only a man and woman can marry. The government's amendments are scheduled to be debated in the senate this week; it's widely expected to be the last session before an election that must be held later this year. Opinion polls suggest that Labor and the government are running neck and neck.
Labor lawmakers agreed Tuesday to offer concessions to gays by promising both same-sex and unmarried couples equality with legally married couples in a range of legal and financial areas. Labor leader Mark Latham said if Labor wins the election this year, it will make wholesale changes to tax, pension, immigration, family, industrial relations, and government benefits laws to ensure equality, an official party spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity.
Couples in long-term heterosexual relationships already share much of the same legal standing as married couples in Australia, but same-sex couples are not recognized by many areas of government. Prime Minister John Howard said he wants parliament to pass laws banning gay marriage by the end of this week so that the divisive issue doesn't affect the elections. By agreeing to the government's changes, Labor has angered minority parties as well as gay lobby groups who want a senate committee to investigate the human rights ramifications of the legislation before it goes to a vote.
Labor support ensures that the government has the numbers to pass the law through the senate, which is dominated by opposition and independent lawmakers. Howard received a standing ovation when he addressed hundreds of opponents of same-sex marriage at a forum at Parliament House last week.
Minority parties and gay groups have accused Howard of picking up the same-sex marriage issue to follow the lead of U.S. president George W. Bush, a friend of the prime minister's. Australia's Gay Rights Network said it was angry that the new Labor platform did not include its demand for a system of federal recognition of civil unions as a next-best option to marriage. "Labor has sold out the lesbian and gay community in the hope of attracting fundamentalist Christian voters who aren't going to vote for them anyway," spokesman Rodney Croome said.