Gay and lesbian couples will have the same rights as heterosexuals under new Australian laws but marriage will remain off-limits, Attorney General Robert McClelland said Wednesday.
McClelland announced that the Labor government would introduce legislation next month to remove same-sex discrimination from some 100 laws, including those related to health and pension entitlements, social security and tax.
If passed, the new laws will mean that gay and lesbian partners will no longer be treated as individuals, but as a couple, to assess their means and entitlements.
The proposed national legislation, which will bring federal laws into line with those in the states and territories, will grant homosexual couples the same rights as heterosexual de facto relationships, McClelland said.
"The changes will provide for equality of treatment in a wide range of areas including superannuation, taxation, social security, workers compensation, pharmaceutical benefits," McClelland told reporters in Canberra.
"These will make a practical difference to the lives of a group of fellow Australians who, for far too long, have suffered discrimination at a Commonwealth (federal) level."
McClelland said the laws, expected to be in force by mid-2009, did not change the government's opposition to same-sex marriage.
"These reforms won't change the Marriage Act," he said.
"We made it clear before the election that the government regards marriage as being between a man and a woman and we don't support any measures that seek to mimic that process."
Australian Coalition for Equality spokesman Rodney Croome welcomed the changes, which he said would give certainty to elderly and retired same-sex couples in regard to their superannuation, aged care and pension entitlements.
But he said it was "deeply disappointing that the government is not prepared to accept equality in marriage".
The announcement won in-principle support from the conservative opposition leader Brendan Nelson, despite his Liberal Party's steadfast rejection of gay marriage, gay adoption and gay IVF.
"As a matter of principle, we believe that no Australian should pay a dollar more in tax or receive a dollar less in social security support by virtue of their sexuality," he said.