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Keith Rankin: Civil Unions And Discrimination

Civil Unions And Discrimination

by Keith Rankin

One of the most important (yet least discussed) reasons why we need to have ''civil unions'' for same-sex couples is the need for such couples to be treated the same as married couples by government welfare agencies.

Marriage remains the last bastion of legal discrimination. You can no longer discriminate against people on grounds of gender, religion or ethnicity. But you can discriminate between people who are in a relationship "in the nature of marriage" and those who are not.

Civil Unions are relationships bound in law that, while not marriage, are in the nature of marriage. Further a legal civil union creates the concept of a de facto civil union. Given that de facto marriages are now deemed to be equivalent to marriages for welfare and many other purposes, so too will civil unions and de facto civil unions.

Soon, the only form of legal discrimination will be between people with "partners" and people without. Most (but not all) of the discrimination of this form works to the financial disadvantage of partnered people, and to the financial advantage of the state. How does this discrimination work?

The principal form of positive discrimination relates to "non-qualifying spouses" of New Zealand Superannuitants. That is, to partners under 65 of persons who are aged over 65. Such partners are able to receive a reduced pension.

Generally, however, the income support system in New Zealand works to the disadvantage of married people. I will consider just two of many possible examples.

Imagine a conventional kiwi nuclear family: Mum, Dad, two children. Dad works fulltime. Mum works part-time for $200 per week. Now consider what happens if Dad loses his job and cannot find another.

The family will qualify for a partial unemployment benefit. The family will receive $575 per week from the benefit, from Mum's wages, from the Accommodation Supplement, and from Family Support tax credits.

What will happen if Dad separates from Mum? The now smaller family of three will receive more than before ($577 per week), because the clawback on the unemployment benefit (for married parents) is much greater than the clawback on the domestic purposes benefit (DPB) that is only available to single parents.

Now, let's imagine that Mum forms a new relationship with another single mother. One of Mum's children goes to live with Dad, and the new partner brings in a child of her own. We are back to a family of two adults and two children.

But, in this case, both women are currently treated as single. The disposable income of this household is $885 rather than $575. The only difference is the gender of the partner.

If Mum forms a civil union with her new partner, their income will fall back to $575. Their benefits will be reduced from two DPBs to a married unemployment benefit.

The second example I want to consider relates to couples over 65 where both are living in a rest home. At a rest home, both pay the maximum $636 rate per week for their respective single rooms. Yet they only receive a pension of $191.61 each compared to the $229.93 paid to the unmarried person (or person who had been living with a same-sex partner) in the next room.

Reduced superannuation is not the only way in which the elderly married are discriminated against, compared to elderly single people.

Civil Unions should be seen as a way of achieving equal discrimination against all couples, and therefore should be supported on the grounds of equal unfairness.

The bigger question is whether it is morally defensible to discriminate against people with partners. I don't think it is. Further, there is a simple way out that does not impose significant financial risk to the government.

The core benefit for all could be the benefit (or pension) that is today paid to married people. People would apply to have their benefits topped up according to their individual needs. Certainly an elderly person living alone clearly has needs that would normally justify some supplementary income support.

We could move to a system of universal "rights-based" individual benefits and pensions (treating equals equally) that are set at relatively low levels (eg current "married" levels), combined with "needs-based" supplementary benefits (treating unequals unequally) that take into account all of a person's unique circumstances.

Unemployed couples - and married residents of rest-homes - should not have to separate to avoid negative discrimination.


© 2002 Keith Rankin

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