Laws that would allow same-sex couples to form civil unions in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) were originally scheduled to be debated in parliament this month but it stalled as it faced heavy pressure from PM Kevin Rudd's new government.
In response to a rally held on Feb 2 which demanded the restoration of the original version of the ACT civil unions act, Australia's federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland told the February 7 Australian that the Rudd government thinks "a civil unions register along the lines of Tasmania is appropriate" while the "ceremonial aspects of the ACT model were inappropriate."
The register, which has been in effect in Tasmania since 2004, differs from a civil union in that it recognises a broad range of relationships, including de facto heterosexual relationships and familial relationships, for the purposes of recognition by government. The state of Victoria is considering a similar measure.
At the Feb 2 rally, ACT Labor Attorney-General Simon Corbell and openly gay ACT Labor MP Andrew Barr reiterated their commitment to civil unions in the territory.
"The [ACT] government will not walk away from the principle that people in a same-sex relationship should be entitled to enter that relationship legally before the law and to do so through a formal ceremony that is recognised by the law", Corbell told the rally.
"We should be able to say, if we want to recognise same-sex relationships in this way, and if the democratically elected [ACT Legislative] Assembly chooses to legislate in that way, then that is what the law should be."
On Jun 13, 2006, the former federal Liberal government in a rare move used its powers under the ACT Self Government Act to strike down a law which was fast-tracked by the Territory's Labor government, to grant civil unions between same-sex couples.
"The Tasmanian scheme met the needs and wishes of the Tasmanian community. However, the ACT community clearly preferred a civil unions model and that is the model that the Government is pursuing," a spokesperson for ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope told The Canberra Times.
The spokesperson added that the Bill would not be brought forward until "policy differences" between the Territory and the Commonwealth are resolved.
ACT Liberal Senator Gary Humphries, who crossed the floor to vote against his government's overturning of a gay rights Bill in 2006, labelled it "hypocrisy" as the Labor Government was now "baulking" at similar legislation.
He was quoted as saying in The Times on Feb 10 that the territory had the right to govern itself and suggested that the Rudd Government wasn't serious in 2006 and just wanted to have a go at the federal government and to presumably exploit the gay vote.
"They wanted to get gay people to believe they were on their side, but now that it comes down to making a real decision, they no longer seem to be on that side and think there are more votes to be lost by supporting such legislation."
Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group activist Rodney Croome pointed out that "what opponents of the Stanhope government's proposal are saying is that gay relationships are fine as long as they aren't visibly and officially celebrated."
"The Rudd Government should listen to what Canberrans want instead of trying to arm-twist an outcome that appeases Christian lobbyists," Croome told Eevolution.com.au.
The Federal Government's stance on civil unions or any scheme that excludes an official ceremony is similar to what the Australian Christian Lobby has officially said it would support.
While ACT is a very small jurisdiction with a population of some 339,000 - majority of whom live in the capital city of Canberra, observers say that the issue is closely watched not only by the gay and lesbian community but also parts of the Christian community Australia-wide and the outcome would set a precedence for other states.
Key features of the Tasmanian relationship registry
The relationship registry is administered by the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages and was opened on January 1st 2004.
Any two people can register a Deed of Relationship including those in same-sex and opposite-sex relationships (called "significant relationships"), and those in companionate and familial relationships (called "caring relationships").
When two people register a Deed of Relationship they enter into a new legal union and acquire virtually all of the rights of married couples in state law.
There is no official, ceremonial component to entering a Deed of Relationship, but some couples arrange their own ceremony to coincide with the signing of their Deed of Relationship.
Tasmanian registered relationships are automatically recognised in countries such as the UK as civil partnerships. They are beginning to be recognised in federal law as proof of the existence of a relationship in areas such as immigration.
Source: Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group