A Civilised Union


Census time presents a cornucopia of options for postmodern gay and lesbian couples. How does one answer when asked to nominate live-in relationship status? Married? De facto? Civil unionised? Civilised, perhaps?


The Census affords my boyfriend Steven and me (we have the same name) a rare opportunity to be officially counted as a couple in Australia. We’ve been together for seven and a half years, are doing the mortgage thing, and looking on as numerous gay friends with dual passports tie the knot legally in Canada and England. (All our love travels across the globe to our Melbourne friends, Tony and Mal, for their civil partnership in their adopted city of London this Saturday night. Wish we could be there!)

The arrival of the Census form on the doorstep of our home and hearth coincides roughly with the second anniversary of the Howard Government spitting on the welcome mat by tightening up the 1961 Marriage Act, for fear that same-sex couples attaining legal status overseas might attempt to gain recognition of their relationships here.

Fear or more specifically, playing to the false fears of societal breakdown promulgated by the growing Christian Right in Australia runs in tandem with a purported necessity to protect and fortify the status quo of marriage for one man, one woman. But there is no artful way to put this: because of its bigotry, the neo-conservative Howard Government is denying gay people’s human right to attain full legal recognition and a measure of greater happiness.

Contrast Howard’s position with a truly liberal Liberal Party in Victoria, where Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu supports civil unions. That’s liberalism, boys taking the initiative to be free and happy, not oppressed in some Cuban-style state of denial.

Sometimes, the Howard Government’s window dressing of social cohesion comes crashing down to reveal this crass bigotry in all its pathetic nakedness. Earlier this year, Greens Senator Kerry Nettle suggested the 2006 Census contain a question in which people could nominate their sexuality. It was arguably a good idea, particularly given the current emphasis on gay civil unions threatens to sideline the existence of single gay men, lesbians, transsexuals, and so on.

But Census overseer Chris Pearce, the Parliamentary Secretary to Treasurer Peter Costello, was having none of it. Why, he protested in a press release in February, such a request would require printing 180 million extra sheets of paper! But the last paragraph said it all: ‘We long ago accepted that the Australian Democrats live with the fairies at the bottom of the garden. The Greens have taken that one step further: they now want us to count them!’

Forget the extra paper. Pearce just wanted to verbally bash the poofters. So chortlingly happy is he with this rejoinder that the press release still has pride of place on his website.

Presumably, if one doesn’t count the fairies, one can not only deny their existence, but also pillory them on official Government letterhead. Pity the poor hapless Press Secretary, Gillian Harvey, who had to put her name to that witless piece of bile. She’d be better off advising her boss to take a briefing from Government numbers man, Bill Heffernan, for whom counting the fairies in Parliament and the judiciary is an obsession. Pearce and Heffernan could meet over a nice martini in some relaxing cocktail lounge, man to man, and fluff out a more comfortable position.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett.

Suppressing the fairies means you make sure none of the official Australian Bureau of Statistics information actually carries any salient advice on how same-sex couples should nominate themselves in the Census. Motivated gay and lesbian live-in couples ring the official help line.

‘I am in a same-sex relationship,’ Rodney Cruise of Richmond wrote recently on The Age letters page:

The Australian Bureau of Statistics help line has advised my partner and me to mark the answer to question five on the census form as ‘de facto.’ The Federal Government refuses to recognise same-sex relationships as ‘de facto,’ so why is the ABS advising same-sex couples to breach the law and lie?

Good point.

Another Melburnian emailed me to say he too had contacted the help line. ‘I rang the Census hotline and asked, if a person entered into a gay marriage overseas but that marriage is not, of course, recognised under Australia law, should they answer the question œmarried ? [The staff member] at the Census office said this was a very good question, and after putting me on hold, told me under such circumstances, a person should answer œmarried. ’

Odd that the ABS recognises civil partnerships or marriages from overseas when the Howard Government does not. Clearly the idea is to let confusion reign supreme.

Still, in the 1996 Census 10,000 same-sex couples were able to cut through the confusion and successfully identify themselves, presumably as de factos. In 2001, the figure doubled to 20,000. Last year’s Bureau of Statistics Year Book conceded there were limitations with these figures, including ‘lack of knowledge that same-sex relationships could be counted as such in the Census.’ Gee, why would that be?

Some people channel their anger and confusion into artful solutions. Kerryn Phelps, the ex-President of the Australian Medical Association, who married her partner Jackie Stricker in New York, told a relationship equality rally a year ago that same-sex couples should ‘fill in the part of the [Census] form that says ‘spouse’ or ‘married’ if you believe you are spiritually married. Let their computer go into meltdown trying to cope with same-sex spouses.’

Amen to that. But one wonders if the relationship status will then be counted at all. In the end, Steven and I opted for ‘de facto.’ Conservative times call for conservative measures.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.