Australian Capital Territory (ACT)leader John Stanhope has accused coalition senators of “shamefully and explicitly” endorsing second-class citizenship after failing to protect the Civil Unions Bill in the Senate, the remaining hope for the legislation to be passed.

The ACT’s local assembly approved the bill last month giving same sex couple’s the right to a civil union after watering down the law to ensure it did not represent marriage, but the Federal Government quashed the law last week.

Mr Stanhope praised ACT Liberal Senator Gary Humphries for bringing the issue to the floor “Mr Humphries stands alone as the only Coalition Senator prepared to stand up for the ACT’s rights.

“But when his colleagues, elected representatives from around the country, had a historic opportunity to defend and uphold the very principles of democracy that brought them into the Senate Chamber in the first place, they squibbed.

“They abandoned 320,000 of their fellow Australians and they rubber-stamped the Prime Minister’s own disgraceful disenfranchisement of the people of the ACT, rendering the rights of Canberrans second-class rights, the democratic entitlements of Canberrans second-class entitlements.”

Mr Stanhope said he was deeply disappointed that the Senate had failed so wholly to comprehend the gravity of what it was doing and he questioned whether Coalition Senators would have been so cavalier with the principles of democracy if the issue at stake had not involved a minority group.

He said: “If the Federal Government had taken aim at a majority interest, instead of the interest of Australia’s gay and lesbian communities, would Coalition Senators have been so complacent about their vote?

“And what will they do next time, when the issue is one of greater personal relevance to them and their perceived constituencies? By then, of course, it will be too late. The precedent will have been established. The ACT’s capacity to make laws in its own interest and according to its own conscience will have been forever eroded.”

Prime Minister John Howard said earlier this week, “We are not prepared to accept something which is a plain attempt to equate civil unions with marriage.”