This is No Dog Registry


No, I’m not talking about the ACT’s thwarted attempt at civil partnerships. I’m referring to Tasmania’s globally groundbreaking relationship registry. The registry is important because, for the first time anywhere in the world, it enshrines freedom of choice as the fundamental principle behind relationship law.

The definition of a personal relationship in Tasmanian law is now so wide that it allows people to choose for themselves who the most important person in their life is, and for that relationship to be given equal relationship rights and protections without any questions asked.

No longer do partners have to swear they are in a ‘til-death-us-do-part marriage-like relationship before having their relationship recognised, or jump through the cohabitation and shared-bank-account hoops facing de facto couples.

Under Tasmanian law, couples are also free to enter a new legal relationship in the way that suits them best, by simply filling out forms, or by having a solemn ceremony.

This also contrasts with marriage, where a formal ceremony is mandatory, or de facto law where it is completely absent. In short, under Tasmanian law all personal relationships ¬ same-sex opposite-sex, companionate and familial are equally entitled and respected.

To reinforce the point that Tasmanian relationships law is now thoroughly egalitarian, all old, hierarchical relationship terms like "husband", "wife" and "defacto partner" have been removed from the State’s statutes and replaced with the one inclusive term: "personal relationship".

All these developments have been either ignored or diminished in the debate on same-sex marriage.

To better spruik its more marriage-like civil union scheme, the ACT Government has compared a relationship register to a dog register. Not only is this denigrating of recognised Tasmanian same-sex partners, it’s wrong.

In Tasmania it is not a relationship which is registered but a Deed of Relationship, just like a marriage certificate, by a Registrar, on a register, in a registry.

The Federal Government has also misrepresented the Tasmanian scheme as simply a way to register existing de facto relationships. It has done this to present the scheme as a foil to the gay community’s demand for same-sex marriage, a foil which is nonetheless acceptable to religious lobbyists.

But in reality the Tasmanian registry allows partners to declare their intention to enter a new legal relationship, just like marriage. On this basis the Tasmanian registry is recognised in the law of other countries as a fully fledged civil union scheme.

The bigger point is that it is unfair for the Federal Government to put forward the Tasmanian registry as a substitute for same-sex marriage. It was designed not to replace marriage for same-sex partners, but to sit alongside the more traditional institution, as an alternative way to entitle and protect diverse personal relationships.

As debate on same-sex marriage has focussed on the legislated ceremonies formerly provided in the ACT Civil Partnership Bill, so criticism of the Tasmanian model has shifted to the absence of such ceremonies, with the registry being described as "bland" and only allowing "pretend ceremonies".

It was a deliberate decision not to include mandatory ceremonies.

As I’ve indicated, couples should be free to choose how they enter their new legal relationship. Furthermore, even where ceremonies are a prerequisite for entering a relationship, they do not have the effect of legally creating or recognising that relationship.

Only the Registrar General can do this when she signs the official forms, usually several days after the ceremony, in a process that is the same no matter what the scheme is called or what ceremonies it provides for.

On paper the Tasmanian registry may look "bland" – but so does marriage.

In Tassie, officials who combine the roles of federal marriage celebrant and state Commissioner of Declarations, conduct ceremonies around the signing and witnessing of Deeds of Relationship which are just as affirming and solemn as other civil union or marriage ceremonies.

If there is a difference, it is that couples are freer to create the ceremony which suits them.

Choice, flexibility, greater freedom: these are the hallmarks of a new type of relationship law. These qualities can be distorted and ignored by mainland governments fighting bitterly over same-sex marriage. But they cannot be extinguished, for they are increasingly what our modern society demands.

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