Cruel treatment of ‘marriage refugees’ to end
On February 1 the Federal Government will lift its ban on Australian same-sex partners receiving the documents they need to marry in other countries where same-sex marriage is allowed.
To her great credit, Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, has asked the Department of Foreign Affairs to start issuing certificates of no-impediment to marriage (CNIs) to same-sex couples marrying overseas on the same basis as they are now issued to heterosexual couples.
A CNI is required by many foreign governments as proof the foreigner who wants to marry in their country is of marriageable age and isn’t already married where they come from.
The Australian Government initiative follows a decision by December’s Labor National Conference to give in-principle support to marriage equality and to reverse the CNI ban.
To me the ban always seemed particularly cruel and petty.
The fact Australia doesn’t allow same-sex marriages means hundreds of Aussie couples have been forced overseas to marry, at great expense and away from their loved ones.
Imagine how frustrating it was for these couples that the same government that had turned them into marriage refugees could still thwart their marriage where it was legal.
In many cases couples only discovered about the CNI ban after they had planned their wedding, and their plans had to be scrapped.
Worst of all is the denial of key practical spousal entitlements.
Some of the countries that allow same-sex marriage give greater rights to married couples than to de facto partners.
The CNI ban has deprived some gay Australians living overseas of marital rights in immigration, health care, insurance, parenting, wills and a whole range of other areas.
The Government justified the ban on the basis that same-sex marriages are not recognised in Australia.
But the legal advice Australian Marriage Equality received from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) said this misunderstood the primary purpose of CNIs and was a misuse of governmental power.
The Government’s rationale also ignored the fact that foreign same-sex marriages are increasingly recognised in Australia by private corporations, state governments and even federal government departments.
Perplexed by the Australian Government policy, some foreign governments either dropped the CNI requirement for Australians (e.g. the Netherlands), or dropped their CNI requirement altogether (e.g. New York state).
But it seemed every time a new country provided marriage equality the problem arose again to tarnish Australia’s image.
When the news broke that a CNI had been denied to Angela Borella, the lesbian sister of former Tasmania Premier, David Bartlett, it wasn’t just the Australian public that scratched its head.
Media across the Portuguese-speaking world began asking questions about Australia’s commitment to human rights.
But the Government’s change of heart on CNIs doesn’t just remove a foolish, petty policy.
It also speaks to broader features of the marriage equality campaign.
It speaks to what can be achieved when groups work together, in this case groups like AME and PIAC, and within the ALP, Rainbow Labor.
It speaks to the importance of ordinary people like Angela having the courage to speak out about their rights and their lives.
And it speaks to how far we have come since 2004 when the Howard Government first banned both marriages and CNIs for same-sex couples.
Back then Nicola Roxon was a prominent opponent of marriage equality. Now she not only supports marriage equality but is doing all she can within her portfolio to eliminate inequality.
The bigger battle, to allow same-sex couples to marry in Australia, is still to be won. But the repeal of the CNI ban should give marriage equality supporters renewed hope that we can and will achieve this important reform.
In the meantime, AME will be doing what it can to ensure the new policy has pride of place on relevant government websites including Smart Traveller.
After so many years of saying “no” to love, the world needs to see that the Australian Government is beginning to say “yes”.
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