By ROD McGUIRK, Associated Press
CANBERRA, Australia -- Australia's new government won praise Wednesday for its plan to eliminate discrimination against gay couples in more than 100 laws, but even those applauding said it should go further and approve same sex marriages.
Attorney General Robert McClelland announced that the government will change federal laws to ensure that gay couples in long-term relationships are treated the same as married couples on issues such as taxation, pensions and welfare payments.
"It will make a practical difference to the everyday lives of a group of our fellow Australians who have been discriminated against for far too long," McClelland told reporters.
The amendments will be introduced in Parliament next month, McClelland said, but it will take a year to complete the process.
McClelland said the Marriage Act - the law that applies nationally to ratify marriage - would not be among the laws changed.
"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," he said.
Rights advocates welcomed the proposed changes, but said the government should go further.
"Gay and lesbian Australians will not be fully equal until we are allowed the right to marry the partner of our choice," Rodney Croome of the Australian Coalition for Equality group told national television.
Gay marriage is a hot-button issue in mostly Christian Australia. Many people believe it would undermine the institution of marriage, while gay rights advocates say it is a key test of authorities' willingness to end discrimination.
In the United States, Massachusetts is the only state to allow gay marriage. State bans on same-sex marriages or unions are widespread, though domestic partnerships of some form are recognized in Oregon, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Maine, California, Washington and Hawaii.
Australia's six states and two territories already have passed their own laws giving various levels of recognition to same-sex couples, but change at the federal level has lagged. Conservative former Prime Minister John Howard, who ruled for almost 12 years, strongly supported the idea of "family values" over gay rights.
Opposition leader Brendan Nelson, who succeeded Howard as conservative leader, gave in-principle support to the changes, underscoring broad support in society for the idea.
Canberra's local administration, the Australian Capital Territory government, wants to introduce a bill to enable gay couples to formalize their relationships through civil ceremonies.
McClelland opposes the territory's proposal to include a formal ceremony in its legislation and would not say Wednesday whether his government would overturn the territory's planned law.
Among Australia's population of 21 million people, more than 40,000 live with a partner of the same gender, a government report found last year.