From the 26 July the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) will be holding hearings and public forums across Australia to identity any problems in the access same-sex couples have to financial and work related benefits.
The commission’s report generated a lot of controversy in June when it was revealed that John Howard’s federal government had issued a ban on federal departments issuing submissions themselves, a decision which led to him being criticised by many in the gay community.
Despite a lack of commitment from the government, 330 submissions have already been received providing details about different incidents of discrimination which people have endured.
Individual submissions vary from several that refer to the visa problems same-sex couples face when a partner is employed abroad, to the poignant retelling of the humiliation faced by same-sex couples at weddings when, according to Attorney-General Ruddock’s directions, it must be announced that “according to Australian law, marriage is the union of one man and one woman.” The individual submissions showed how the legal situation currently in place seriously disadvantages same-sex couples in financial terms and often led them to worry about their partners should they die.
Organisations such as the National Union of Students, the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and the Australian Medical Association have provided detailed explanations of where they see discrimination and the need for change to take place.
The submissions are not however exclusively dominated by progressive voices. Several anti-gay organisations have also presented their case before the commission. The Association of Independent Schools of South Australia, a group representing many religious schools, issued a twelve page legal report which after systematically laying out their case for only employing people that “conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the principles of the school both within school hours and outside”, concluded by saying:
“[We call] on HREOC to recognise the importance of religion and religious beliefs and to recommend that exemptions which protect the right of faith based schools to operate in accordance with the religious tenets and beliefs upon which they have been founded remain protected.”
The submission of another group, the Festival of Light Australia who describe themselves on their website as “A Christian ministry to our nation promoting true family values”, to the enquiry consisted of an explanation as to why accommodating same-sex couples would encourage them and thus be detrimental to society.
Gay rights campaigner, Australian Peter Tatchell commented on the commission’s work saying: “It’s a great idea. I am sure they will come up with good recommendations but so long as John Howards government remains in power there s virtually no chance that any progressive recommendations will be implemented. The surest way to advance LGBT rights in Australia is to get rid of the homophobic Howard regime.”