When is a couple not a couple – the politics of recognising same-sex relationships

According to Patricia Karvelas in the Australian yesterday (accompanied by the picture below) , it will be up to John Howard to decide whether or not same-sex couples will be granted equal status with heterosexual couples under Commonwealth law, since the Cabinet could not agree.

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I was rather intrigued to read in this article that one of the reasons advanced against such a change was that the reforms “would cost taxpayers millions in extra social security payments”.  This was news to me, since the main effect I can see on social security entitlements would be to save the taxpayers millions, both through payments of lower ‘partnered’ rates of payment and through taking account of the partner’s income.  While it was once the case that people could get social security just by being “married” to someone, thankfully those days are long gone.

In this morning’s radio discussion on the topic between Gerard Henderson and Fran Kelly, Gerard opined that it was a difficult decision to make, with arguments for and against, etc, etc.  To her credit, Fran rather pointedly asked him what the main argument against reform would be.  The best he could come up with was that while some (higher income) couples would do well out of it financially because of getting access to survivor’s superannuation pensions, other (lower income) couples would be worse off because they would get lower social security payments.

So once again, the political argument for and against policy change is not couched in terms of what is right, but in terms of who will win and lose and the political implications of the losers in particular. 

While Gerard is perfectly right that some people would get lower social security payments if their marriagelike relationships were recognised, this would require them to have willingly volunteered the fact of their relationship to Centrelink.  Anyone who wants to preserve the advantageous financial position of presenting as two single people only has to stay in the closet. 

Somehow I can’t see Centrelink zealously pursuing a couple to prove that they are in a same-sex “marriagelike relationship” – those are difficult enough to prove when the people involved are of opposite sex.  Once the inevitable happens (perhaps not with John Howard, but certainly with the next PM of either stripe), it will indeed be interesting to see how many same-sex couples receiving income support manage to resist the ‘obvious’ financial incentives and declare themselves to Centrelink.  I suspect quite a few will do so.

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18 Responses to When is a couple not a couple – the politics of recognising same-sex relationships

  1. derrida derider says:

    Nah, as you probably well know backroom girl there would be relatively few same-sex couples claiming *any* income support. This is differentially a better-educated, more employable segment of the population.

  2. Backroom Girl says:

    That may be so, on average, DD. But I suspect that there could be quite a few claiming student payments and single parent pensions.

    I guess it would be interesting to see just what costings the people advising Cabinet came up with. I did see some mention in the press of increased expenditure on Medicare and pharmaceutical safety nets and the like.

    But the more pertinent point to me is that, on this issue at least, defining winners and losers simply in financial terms seems to be missing the whole point somewhat.

  3. James Farrell says:

    There’s more to the issue than money, but nonetheless the the injustice of the status quo is usually highlighted by one or another example of someone missing out on a pecuniaryt entitlement, e.g. Justice Kirby’s partner. Therefore it’s reasonable to poiint out that there would be pecuniary losers.

    Perhaps the legislation could include a ‘no disadvantage’ provision, exempting those currently having same-sex partners from obligations that might affect gay couples who choose to shack up in the future.

  4. wilful says:

    I am going to get as Libertarian as I get and ask why there is any State involvement in the relationships between adults. Abolish marriage, at least in a legal sense.

  5. Backroom Girl says:

    Justice Kirby’s partner is one of the ‘losers’ from the current situation – he would be a winner from the inevitable change.

    I don’t think I would agree with a ‘no disadvantage’ clause of the kind you suggest – even trying to determine who was already ‘shacked up’ would be an administrative nightmare. To me, it is a matter of simple equity whichever perspective you look at it from.

    As a woman who values her financial independence, I would prefer to live in a world where people’s entitlements were not subject to an assessment of their partners’ income, but if heterosexual couples are to be assumed to financially support each other, there is no logical reason why the same thinking should not apply to same-sex couples.

    It is interesting to reflect however that many of the financial benefits that same sex couples would gain from recognition of their relationships (such as survivors’ pensions) originally stem from the world view that ‘normal’ couples contain a breadwinner and a financial dependant.

  6. James Farrell says:

    Justice Kirbys partner is one of the losers from the current situation – he would be a winner from the inevitable change.

    That’s what I meant. Maybe I should have written: ‘Therefore its reasonable to point out that there would also be pecuniary losers.

    …there is no logical reason why the same thinking should not apply to same-sex couples.

    In principle, no. But laws that, all of a sudden, disadvantage a particular group should in general be phased in gradually where possible.

  7. It’s hard to believe that money is a significant consideration here, but since it is not respectable to use religious arguments in public people are resorting to weak but socially acceptable reasons, such as the effects on the Budget.

  8. conrad says:

    “So once again, the political argument for and against policy change is not couched in terms of what is right, but in terms of who will win and lose and the political implications of the losers in particular”

    I can’t possibly agree more with this statement.

  9. wilful says:

    Yes, Andrew has it, the unmentioned elephant in the room is that Cabinet was trying not to say “look, we just don’t like poofters”.

  10. Niall says:

    I heard that Gerard Henderson segment and thought just how puerile that analysis was. My wife, who was engaged in a lesbian relationship for 12 years prior to our getting together, made the comment that regardless of whether a couple were ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ when it comes down to legal, moral and ethical equality, money doesn’t enter the equation. I agree.

  11. backroom girl says:

    In principle, no. But laws that, all of a sudden, disadvantage a particular group should in general be phased in gradually where possible.

    Generally, I would agree with that as a principle, James – I just don’t think it would be necessary in this case. I guess I would take the view that if you want the rights that go with recognition, you also get the responsibilities. As I pointed out, implementation of such a change would be essentially an ‘opt in’ process, thereby avoiding the need for any kind of special deal for existing relationships.

  12. conrad says:

    Can I ask, excluding possible economic consequences (which, at an individual level, I find hard to imagine people complaining about — unless poor gay couples are going to complain about being able to get married), who is supposed to be getting disadvantaged here? Are we really talking about the mental health of a bunch a conservatives? or is there a group with a real complaint that might complain?

  13. Backroom Girl says:

    I must admit, Conrad, I just don’t get it – including why Cabinet should apparently find it such a difficult decision to make that they have to leave it up to the PM all by himself. I can’t even see that there are really likely to be any votes in maintaining the status quo (are the Christian extremists really likely to change their votes to Labor over something like this, especially since Labor would do at least as much). On the contrary, there might actually be a few votes for the Coalition if they were to change things – presumably Malcolm Turnbull thinks so. Maybe, as wilful says, it is just that they can bring themselves to do anything for a few poofters.

  14. spog says:

    I’m with wilful. I was kind of hoping (wearing my Captain Naive hat) that at some point someone might suggest that instead of “recognising” homosexual relationships, we could go the other way and get the state out of the business of sanctioning relationships altogether.

  15. Ptobias says:

    I’ve already had a bit to say about this elsewhere, but wanted to add a bit to the discussion here. When Abbott and Andrews – perhaps the two Ministers who are most overt in pursuing policy based on their religious values – are the ones arguing against it, it’s fairly obvious what the real reason against it is. And the suggestion that “it’s not a political priority” is another bogus argument – this is something they could easily get Labor on board with, and they’d have no trouble getting the Democrats and Greens to support it.

    The whole idea of analysing this in terms of financial advantage and disadvantage could be taken to absurd extremes (maybe non-recognised gay couples could get two bites at the first home-buyer’s grant? What about baby bonuses and child care benefits?). None of it should matter. Get the discrimination out of the system, either by (a) recognising all relationships or (b) recognising none.

  16. Sacha says:

    I thought that the federal cabinet would implement the HREOC recommendations so as to remove any policy space between the Coalition and Labor on this issue. The cynical part of me is thinking that Howard may be calculating the electoral differences between implementing and not implementing the recommendations and acting according to what he thinks will be most advantageous to the Coalition.

    If the HREOC recommendations were implemented, it would help Malcolm Turnbull as many Wentworth voters would feel that the differences between the coalition and labor on this issue were non-existent and thus this potential reason to vote against Turnbull wouldn’t exist. It would also help the Coalition with socially liberal voters. “Deferring” implementing the HREOC recommendations may help the Coalition gain the preferences/votes of socially conservative voters/Family First, which might help it in marginal seats and the Senate.

    I can’t work it out.

  17. Sacha says:

    The whole idea of analysing this in terms of financial advantage and disadvantage could be taken to absurd extremes (maybe non-recognised gay couples could get two bites at the first home-buyers grant? What about baby bonuses and child care benefits?). None of it should matter. Get the discrimination out of the system, either by (a) recognising all relationships or (b) recognising none.

    The financial impact of any policy change should always be considered, but here, decide whether the recommendations are a good idea in principle and then look at the budgetary implications. Let’s see – a few million either way on a cash surplus for last year of $17,000,000,000 – I think it’s affordable – does anyone disagree with me?

  18. backroom girl says:

    I was kind of hoping (wearing my Captain Naive hat) that at some point someone might suggest that instead of recognising homosexual relationships, we could go the other way and get the state out of the business of sanctioning relationships altogether.

    Ah Spog, don’t tell me that you think that adults should all be treated as individuals for the purposes of social security entitlements? As you know, I couldn’t agree with you more. I would love to think that we could just let people get on with making their own decisions about who they want to live with and under what terms, without penalising them financially (or rewarding them either). Despite some people’s obsessions about the inequity and unaffordability of giving James Packer’s missus and her ilk potential access to their own $200 or so a week, I don’t think it would cost all that much either, if you got rid of all the special deals for dependent spouses at the same time.

    However, when you have goodies such as survivors’ pensions up for grabs, I guess you might need to have some way of recognising meaningful relationships of one kind or another. Or perhaps we could consign survivor pensions to the dustbin of “male breadwinner, dependent spouse” history, where they belong. That would certainly improve the incentive for women to stay in the workforce :-)

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