Why I Don’t Support the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014

Tonight is the 1st anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s historic decisions in the Proposition 8 and Defense of Marriage Act cases – reinstating marriage equality in California, ensuring couples legally married under state law could not be denied federal benefits, and giving impetus to a surging tide of marriage equality litigation across the US [As an aside, if you get the chance to watch recently released documentary The Case Against 8, do, it’s amazing].

And from tomorrow, Australian couples where one partner has British citizenship will be able to start marrying in UK consulates in (selected) capital cities around the country.

Both developments mean that the question of how marriages solemnised by countries which already have marriage equality are treated under Australian law is firmly back on the public, and political, agenda.

As you may already be aware, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young earlier this year introduced the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 in Commonwealth Parliament. If passed, it would ensure that same-sex couples validly married under the laws of another country would be treated as married under Australian law.

Which sounds eminently reasonable. Indeed, as someone who is a long-term LGBTI advocate himself, is engaged to be married (and has been for four and a half years already), and has contemplated using the laws of either New York or New Zealand to marry his own partner, what problem could I possibly have with this proposed legislation?

Here goes then – at the risk of making myself unpopular with (at least some) other marriage equality advocates, the following is why I do not support progressing with the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014:

My problem is not necessarily about what is included in the Bill (although there is an issue in the drafting which I will come to later). It almost goes without saying that I completely support the legal recognition of the marriages of same-sex couples that have been wed in other countries.

Instead, my problem concerns what is not included in the Bill – the recognition of domestic marriages – and the consequence of only recognising marriages conducted ‘outside’ Australia, and not those ‘inside’ at the same time.

If passed, such legislation would create a situation whereby there would be three main distinct categories of same-sex couples who wish to be treated as married in Australia:

  • Couples who have the financial resources to take advantage of the opportunity to marry under the laws of another country;
  • Couples who have been or are able to marry under the laws of another country because of their current or former nationality (including where one partner has UK citizenship or where the couple has emigrated from a country with marriage equality); and
  • Couples who do not have the financial resources or nationality to be able to take advantage of marriage equality elsewhere.

Only couples in the first two categories would be able to be considered legally married.

In effect, if the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill were to succeed, Australia would have a system which, far from recognising genuine ‘marriage equality’, would actually create new types of marriage inequality, only this time based on distinctions around class and nationality rather than sexual orientation.

Put simply, I cannot advocate for a Bill which would provide the opportunity for a couple who can afford it to get married overseas and have that marriage legally recognised here, but which would tell an elderly couple barely surviving on the age pension that they cannot be married under Australian law because they do not have the money.

If we are genuinely interested in marriage equality, then both couples must have the same right to wed. To put it another way, I am only interested in advocating for a Bill which attempts to redress the injustice perpetrated against both couples, not just the one that can afford to.

Now, some advocates might draw parallels between the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 and the various state and territory same-sex marriage bills that were pursued in Tasmania, NSW and the ACT in recent years. They could argue that both reforms are about gradual or incremental change and therefore both should be supported.

I disagree. While the state and territory same-sex marriage bills raised a range of complex ethical issues, including that they were never genuinely ‘equal’ under Commonwealth law, and more substantively that their final versions were deliberately non-trans* and intersex inclusive (see Notes below), they at least had some substantive arguments in their favour.

Those Bills involved asking state and territory MPs to step in where Commonwealth Parliamentarians had clearly abrogated their responsibility to treat all couples equally. In doing so, advocates were asking state and territory parliaments to do all that they legally could to reduce the discrimination experienced by same-sex couples.

State and territory same-sex marriage bills, and most notably the Bill that was passed in the ACT, also had the benefit of clarifying the constitutional position of marriage equality in Australia. The High Court, in its decision on 12 December 2013, found that while state and territory-based same-sex marriage laws were invalid, Commonwealth parliament clearly has the legal authority to introduce marriage equality through amendments to the Marriage Act 1961.

Which means that, while the Court’s decision to invalidate the marriages of 31 same-sex couples who had been wed in Canberra during that five day window of opportunity was obviously heartbreaking for them, the overall outcome was also of immense benefit to the wider marriage equality movement – it put the pressure squarely back on Commonwealth MPs as the only people who can remove marriage discrimination in the law.

Which makes it incredibly odd – and that’s putting it kindly – that the first Bill to be introduced after that decision, and (from an outsider’s perspective anyway) what seems likely the first Bill to be debated, is legislation which asks for something less than what is necessary to achieve full equality.

The Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 essentially involves asking the same people, sitting in the same place and exercising the same powers, who could deliver us full equality, to pass a law which falls far short of what we want, and fails to deliver the rights we deserve. In this light, the current Bill is inferior to the – already problematic – state and territory same-sex marriage laws.

It is also difficult to work out what the tactics might be in pursuing such a strategy. After all, it is hard to imagine many, or indeed any, Commonwealth MPs voting to recognise marriages solemnised elsewhere who would not also vote to recognise marriages entered into domestically.

The level of opposition to such a Bill would also probably be the same – while the people who support ongoing discrimination against LGBTI people in the Marriage Act might be a little bit slow to grasp the concept of equality, they would be quick to reject anything which ended up with the recognition of married same-sex couples on Australian shores.

Which makes the decision to pursue the recognition of overseas marriages first, isolated from the question of domestic marriages, seem too clever by half. Perhaps the only benefit is that it has instigated another parliamentary inquiry into marriage equality (although even that might not feel like much of a benefit as we all write another submission, to yet another inquiry, arguing for our equality, when what we really need is for Commonwealth MPs to just get it done already).

For those interested, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently considering Senator Hanson-Young’s Bill, and is accepting public submissions until Thursday 31 July (details here: <http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Recognition_of_Foreign_Marriages_Bill_2014 ).

I do commend Australian Marriage Equality for ensuring that their ‘pro forma’ online submission encourages people to call for both the recognition of foreign marriages and for marriages performed here (details here: <http://www.australianmarriageequality.org ).

Nevertheless, I would go further than that. I would explicitly argue to Senator Hanson-Young, and to anyone who wishes to proceed with the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014, that they should reconsider. Once the Senate inquiry is completed, and presents its final report to Parliament by Wednesday 3 September, I believe this legislation should be abandoned.

The next Bill to be debated in the Senate Chamber should be, must be, legislation which provides for genuine marriage equality, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, and not one which would allow some same-sex couples to marry, but only those from certain classes or nationalities.

Still unconvinced? There is one more problem with the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 which, as I alluded to earlier, lies in the drafting of the Bill itself. And it is not a minor problem, either.

The Bill would leave in tact the current definition of marriage in section 5 of the Marriage Act 1961 (“marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”). Instead, it replaces section 88EA with the following:

(1)  Despite the definition of marriage in subsection 5(1), a union between:

(a)  a man and another man; or

(b)  a woman and another woman;

solemnised in a foreign country under local law as a marriage is recognised as a marriage in Australia.

(2)  The parties to a union mentioned in subsection (1) have the same rights and obligations under this Act, or under any law of the Commonwealth, as the parties to a marriage between a man and a woman.

This is explicitly, and only, a same-sex marriage Bill. It is not genuinely inclusive of any marriages of people who may not be, or who may not identify as, a man or a woman. Some couples which include trans* or intersex individuals may not be able to utilise such laws or may not want to, because the language does not reflect who they are, and therefore denies the nature of their relationships.

The Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill does not challenge the unnecessary inclusion of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in section 5 of the Marriage Act, something which we should be moving away from – instead, it further entrenches these concepts, by replicating this language in additional subsections. Which, for me, is yet another reason – and a fairly compelling one at that – to not advocate for this Bill as it currently stands.

In conclusion, while the intentions of those who have drafted this legislation are sound, the outcome that its passage would deliver is not. It is time to go back to the drawing board, and return with a Bill that genuinely delivers marriage equality, not just to some couples, but for all.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, author of Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, author of Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014

Notes

  • In terms of state and territory same-sex marriage laws, I acknowledge that the question of whether they should have been supported at all was a complex one, with different people coming down on different sides of that debate. My own view was that the drafting of those Bills should have attempted to set out a range of possible relationships which could have been recognised, allowing the High Court to strike out whichever it believed did not have a constitutional basis. As it turns out, all of them would have been– but at least we would have been struck out together.
  • As with all other posts (except where explicitly stated), these are my own views, and not those of any organisation with which I am associated.
  • Finally, there are still five weeks left until submissions close to the Senate inquiry. At this stage, I plan on writing a submission that reflects the above, and calls for the Recognition of Foreign Marriage Bill 2014 to be dropped, and replaced with a genuine marriage equality bill. Of course, I am willing to hear any arguments countering what I have written, and change my position/submission if I am convinced that I have got it wrong.
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2 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Support the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014

  1. Alastair, I want to look at the paragraph:

    “Put simply, I cannot support a Bill which would provide the opportunity for a wealthy couple to get married overseas and have that marriage legally recognised here, but which would tell an elderly couple barely surviving on the age pension that they cannot be married under Australian law because they do not have the money.”

    In particular I want to look at your use of the word “wealthy”. I feel this is a moral judgment term in the context, and feel it would be more correctly be replaced by “in a position to afford”.

    The difference is subtle. Saying “wealthy” implies here “of surplus means”. However a couple may have carefully saved monies they are drawing on, perhaps to be used to subsidise their retirement, or they may have profit generating assets they are in a position to liquidate, or they may use monies allocated for something else that could be considered a compromise.

    Such a couple who appear “wealthy” may in fact find themselves in a worse position financially after financing an overseas marriage, but in a happier place in their relationship and their lives due to prioritising their marital status.

    Then again, a gift from friends and family may provide the necessary means to fund in part or whole such an overseas marriage, and to that end, the couple themselves may not necessarily wealthy, but are able to finance their marriage due to external generosity.

    Please reconsider this objection based on “wealth”. In some cases this may be the case, but in others, far from it.

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  2. Thanks Michael for your considered response. The use of the word ‘wealthy’ was a rhetorical device, and not meant as a pejorative, but I can see your argument. As a result I have changed the wording above. The substantive point remains however – the right to marry, or to have a legally recognised marriage under Australian law, should not be restricted only to those who can afford to travel elsewhere for their wedding.

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