And so the headlines and talkback hosts blared over the weekend. The Channel Seven Sunrise program on Sunday carried the words “MUSLIM MARRIAGE DOLE RORT” on screen. Prue MacSween, one of the panellists, reminded us all that polygamy was illegal. She’s right, except that in Australia the way you get around it is to have only one of the marriages registered. It’s a bit like having a wife and a fuckbuddy or mistress or girlfriend or whatever.
She complained that
... these people are thumbing their nose at us and rorting the system.These people? Us? Yep, these people have polygamous unions. They marry more than once. We don’t do that. We know that real Australians enjoy adulterous relationships rather than polygamous ones.
(To be fair, when probed about the use of the word “us”, MacSween said she was referring to taxpayers. Though she then spoke of “them” coming here and not standing up in court.)
She also mentioned Centrelink’s claim that it would cost more money to police and enforce the law against this unknown number of polygamous rorters. I sympathise with her in this respect. Some years back, I worked as a welfare rights lawyer running appeals against Centrelink decisions between the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Representing the Commonwealth in the AAT was an excellent and highly professional advocate. The poor chap managed appeals in two states and was about to have a third state added to his load. This would mean he wouldn’t be able to attend all hearings and he’d be jammed. The result? More settlements, which were not in the interests of the Commonwealth and the taxpayer.
The Department of Human Services were also cutting down on the expense of investigators to conduct surveillance on suspected cheats. During my own research for client cases, I came across numerous AAT decisions where the evidence of investigators was used to show that the Centrelink client wasn’t being honest about their relationship status. Without such surveillance, the tribunal will have to decide between the client’s word and Centrelink file.
Oh, and by the way, it isn’t just Muslim polygamous arrangements who can breach Centrelink rules. The MacSweens and Bernardis and Hansons of this world might not be aware that our law recognises these thing called de facto relationships. Our Social Security Act recognises that you can live in a domestic arrangement with someone you aren’t married to, or even with someone you can’t legally marry, such as a same-sex partner.
Perhaps the most frightening response to this pseudo-issue was from Pauline Hanson, who called for the introduction of an Australian identity card. Seriously, Pauline, that is sooooo 1980s. Back in 1985 the Hawke government introduced the idea of an Australia card that was designed not so much to catch welfare cheats as tax cheats. Conservatives led by John Howard lined up to oppose the card, only to support a similar proposal 10 years later. After much mass debate, the proposal was dropped.
Perhaps Hanson or her advisers should read this very helpful e-Brief published by the Commonwealth Parliament’s Law and Bills Digest Section. She should also understand that her constituents will not appreciate a Big Brother ID card forced on them just to stop a handful of polygamous Muslims.
First published in Crikey on 12 December 2016.