Gay rights activists in Australia have welcomed a new bill that aims to ensure equal treatment for gay and lesbian couples.

The Same-Sex Entitlements Bill was introduced in the Federal Parliament today.

It will remove discrimination against same-sex partners in areas like immigration, taxation, veterans’ pensions and aged care, and follows a bill introduced earlier this year aimed at removing discrimination in superannuation.

The Labour government had made a manifesto commitment to reform following last year’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report. It recommended the amendment of 58 laws that discriminate against same-sex couples and their children.

The new legislation, which effects 19 government departments and amends 68 laws, recognises de facto couples, even if one or both partners is still legally married to someone else.

Some Liberal party critics have accused Labour of legalising polygamy.

“The third person in an extramarital relationship can effectively claim the assets of a marriage or of the long-term de facto relationship,” Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella told the Herald Sun.

“The Opposition is saying a marriage without love is more important than a de facto relationship with it,” said gay rights advocate Rodney Croome.

“This is an ideological attack on the rights and protections all de facto couples have enjoyed for more than a generation in both state and federal law.

“It’s a fact of life that in some de facto relationships one partner may still be married, at least on paper, and that unless such de facto relationships have some legislative protection the unmarried partner is legally and financial vulnerable, especially if their de facto relationship breaks down.

“The Government’s initiative is about giving equal protection to de facto partners no matter what their personal circumstances, and we strongly urge both the Government and the Senate not to cave in to the Opposition’s prejudices.”

Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes has welcomed the new legislation.

“I am delighted that the Government is acting on the recommendations of our report,” he said.

Legislation introduced today should come into force by mid-2009.

The Government has announced that discrimination will be removed in a number of areas, including taxation, superannuation, medicare and pharmaceutical benefits, aged care, veteran’s entitlements, workers compensation, and employment entitlements.

“I welcome these changes, which will provide economic equality for same sex couples throughout Australia,” said Commissioner Innes.

“I congratulate the Rudd Government for honouring its election commitment to removing discrimination against people simply because of who they love.”

In 2004, under former Prime Minister John Howard, federal legislation banning same-sex marriage was passed.

Some had hoped that the defeat of Mr Howard and the Liberals in November 2007 and the election of a Labour government might move the debate about gay marriage forward.

In fact, while Labour has decided to tackle legal inequities between gay and straight couples, it maintains that marriage is only between a man and a woman.