Debate in Canberra raged last night over a new civil partnership scheme. The Minister for the Australian Capital Territory (the region where Canberra is situated) Jon Stanhope said that the new Civil Union Act would “essentially create domestic relationships”.

Mr Stanhope said that discrimination against gay and lesbian couples was unacceptable, and that the region should follow the example of Tasmania in registering same sex relationships.

He explained that the Civil Union Act would go further, “It won’t be just a register of the existence of a relationship,” but would create “functional equality”.

The new Union Act will not impact the definition of marriage within the Commonwealth Marriage Act, which is national law. As Mr Stanhope said, “a civil union is not a marriage.” He noted that states and territories in Australia could not legislate for gay marriage, and he was at pains to point out that he had not done so.

“This is not an attack on marriage. This is an acceptance of other relationships for same-sex couples and indeed for those opposite sex couples who don’t wish or don’t choose to pursue a marriage under the Marriage Act,” he said.

Last year, Australia’s national prime minister, John Howard of the Liberal party said that he believed “very strongly that marriage is exclusively a union for life of a man and a woman to the exclusion of others.”