This Is Not Equality

Phyllis Lyon, 79, left, and Del Martin, 83, right,the first legally married same-sex couple in San Francisco.

Phyllis Lyon, 79, left, and Del Martin, 83, right,the first legally married same-sex couple in San Francisco, after 51 years together.

Centrelink is targeting couples who live together but maintain their individual financial independence, and claim benefits as two singles.

This was a contentious issue in the LGTBTI community when the then Labor government (acting on the Human Rights Commission report, “Same Sex, Same Entitlements”, by Graeme Innes), brought in measures to ensure that same-sex and opposite-sex couples would be treated ‘equally’ in Commonwealth law.
While broadly welcomed by the community, the changes to benefit rules threw many older LGBTI couples into turmoil and poverty. Penny Wong shrugged off the complaints, saying that we had asked for equality and well, here it was.

Problems arose because many older couples had organised their finances based on existing benefit rules, which treated a same-sex couple as two singles, with no assumption that one partner was financially dependent on the other. Now they were suddenly treated as a couple, leading to often quite drastic cuts in income.

“Lismore couple Elaine Fregar and Deirdre Dowsett, who have spent much of their adult lives facing official and financial discrimination, applaud the recognition.

But in a bitter-sweet irony, overnight it will also make them around $10,000 a year worse off. “Having been discriminated against by the lack of legislation for so long, we’re being discriminated against basically by mistake,” Ms Dowsett said.

Ms Fregar, who receives government benefits for six months each year and has a Centrelink health care card, will now have her partner’s income taken into account and will lose money as a result.
“For people of our age who have mortgages, suddenly this is going to make a huge hole in our incomes,” Ms Dowsett said.

“My income is high enough to mean that Elaine couldn’t get Centrelink, but low enough that we will struggle.”

To illustrate the magnitude of the hit:

“The discrepancy between the Age Pension for singles and a single member of a couple is $213.50 per fortnight, once you factor in supplements. And while the saying may be that ‘two can live as cheaply as one’, the harsh reality is that this is not the case.”

Gay lesbian bisexual trans and intersex ageing Australia said

“LGBTI people living in same sex couples have been losing that much money from pensions since 2009 all in the name of ‘equality’ – this from a government that refused to grandfather them from the changes and would not recognise [prior] years of discrimination and financial inequity. a serious terrible loss for elder pensioners and people with disabilities in our community, who still suffer as a result. Never forget.”

Changes to the retirement age are being phased in gradually, to ease the shock and help people to plan. Other government changes to pension arrangements – for example, widows pensions – left existing claimants on the old system, while applying the new rules only to new claimants, a process known as “grandfathering”. No such consideration was given to same sex couples.

”Eight years lead-in time for heteros, eight months lead-in time for homos,” said veteran campaigner Mannie De Saxe, bitterly.

There were some last-minute cosmetic efforts to disguise this unwarranted cruelty – leaflets, posters, helplines and counsellors – but it was just window dressing. Follow the link for more on the arguments at the time. But grandfathering was firmly refused.

In conversation on my radio show at the time, “Freshly Doug”, the head of Centrelink, Henk Jongen, played down the potential harm. He indicated that it would be entirely up to same sex couples whether they defined themselves as two singles or a couple, and suggested Centrelink would accept that self-definition. That was always honoured more in the breach than the observance. But now they’re turning round and calling it fraud.

Now, under the guise of cost-saving and cracking down, Centrelink will show no such lenience, dubbing couples previously shown understanding, who still claim as two singles, ‘frauds and cheats.’

Centrelink operates on the assumption that the person with the higher income is always financially supporting the less-well-off partner. The aim of the crackdown is to force them to do so, and hence cut the governments welfare bill. The lower-earning partner will have their benefit reduced or terminated depending on the wealth and income of their partner.

When this first happened, many LGBTI couples, particularly older couples, chose to live separately. They simply could not afford the loss in income. Will Centrelink now pursue them? Some partners, having chosen from the outset to retain their financial independence, ended their relationships rather than become dependent on their partner.

In other cases, former partners still sharing the same home, even though their relationship has ended, in order to save money, were allowed to call themselves single. Advocates worry that the crackdown may mean that from here on, Centrelink will assume that joint ownership of a property ‘proves’ an ongoing relationship, and cut off benefits accordingly. When is a couple not a couple? With no marriage equality, there’s no fair way to tell.

Amicably separated and divorced heterosexual couples sharing a house have always been recognised as singles. Will that also end? Or would that be too much equality?

The benefit rules take no account of the different ways real people organise their lives. It’s time to look at the law and bring it up to date to reflect modern reality: that not all couples – regardless of sexuality – pool their finances, or financially support one another. Or alternatively, pool parts of their expenses – for example, rent or mortgage repayments – without being in what John Howard used to call “an interdependent relationship.”

As things stand, LGBTI couples claiming benefits, especially the elderly, are once again facing potential cuts to their income. Another wave of forced separations, another round of impoverishment, will follow.
This is not equality: this is another form of discrimination, and it’s wrong.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)