In the brochure for this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival Federal Attorney General, Philip Ruddock, gushes with support in his letter of endorsement for the month long celebration. He writes:
The Government supports tolerance and freedom from discrimination against individuals on the ground of sexual preference. The Coalition condemns discrimination in all its forms and believes each of us should have the opportunity to participate in the life of our community and to experience the benefits and accept the responsibilities that flow from such participation without fear of discrimination. The Government is committed to maintaining the Australian traditions of tolerance and respect for diversity, which are the foundations of one of the world’s successful multicultural societies.
Sadly, this professed government support for tolerance, freedom, diversity and non-discrimination does not extend to our Prime Minister, who once again pointedly refused to send a message.
To the casual observer or international visitor however, this uncompromising statement of equality and tolerance from Australia’s top law officer would be reassuring. But for those of us all too familiar with the Howard Government’s anti-gay agenda, this pro-gay rhetoric is an outrageous political lie of Orwellian proportions.
Only last December, Ruddock and his department oversaw the removal of “sexuality,” as a recognised status from within Australia’s National Framework for Human Rights - National Action Plan. The Framework, now lodged with the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), in Geneva, conveniently ignores the inequality and discrimination which still impacts on sexual minorities and same-sex relationships.
This was despite the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission advocating the continued inclusion of “sexuality” as an area for the government to address. For the first time ever, gay and lesbian people have been airbrushed from our nation’s human rights portrait. Not just overlooked, but deliberately removed.
This is notable, in that Australia is one of very few western countries that has no national anti-discrimination laws on the grounds of sexual orientation, and no national partnership laws for same-sex couples. Most Western countries and many Eastern European and Latin American countries now outlaw such discrimination with national laws, and to varying degrees legally recognise same-sex relationships. Australia does not.
This is further complicated by the fact while most States and Territories have come a long way in addressing these inequities, the Commonwealth is lagging far behind. As a consequence, the Federal Government is the most frequent discriminator against sexual minorities.
The UNHRC has criticised Australia more than once for this, and only last year found in favour of Mr Edward Young, an Australian citizen seeking to receive the war pension of his late partner, Larry Cains. Mr Young appealed to the UNHRC which found the Howard Government in breach of its obligations under article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for failing to recognise rights on the basis of sexual orientation.
The Government refused to accept the ruling and Ruddock continues to ignore it, even if Edward and Larry did live together for 38 years.
However, it’s not just Veteran’s Affairs where homophobic discrimination is rife, it’s across all areas of Commonwealth law and encompasses levels of systemic discrimination that would be unthinkable if applied to other groups in Australia.
For example, while the ban on gay and lesbian personnel serving in the Defence Forces was lifted in 1992, internal discrimination continues. There are no spousal relocation allowances for same-sex couples, placing exceptional strain on couples denied shared living quarters on ADF bases and access to defence force home loan grants, unlike their heterosexual comrades. Worse still, the same-sex partners of military personnel are treated differently to other “spouses”, and are denied compensation death benefits and automatic grief counselling if their partner is killed or injured.
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