Monday, September 13, 2010

Australian head of state Julia Gillard has an unmarried partner...and it's not a political liability

Julia Gillard has formed a government and is Australia's newly elected prime minister. She has a long-time partner, Tim Mathieson. They are not married. The Australians don't care about that. "De facto" relationships are a regular part of Australian life -- and Australian law. "De facto" partners qualify for all the same legal consequences accorded married partners. In fact, no country has gone farther than Australia in equalizing the status of married and unmarried couples.

As Prime Minister Gillard moves out into the international scene, I'll be following the status of her relationship. Tarja Halonen, elected President of Finland in 2000, had a partner of 15 years whom she had not married. She specifically said she had no plans to marry him, but just a few months after taking office, they did marry in a small civil ceremony. Press reports suggested that she bowed to pressure, especially from those who thought her partner would not be accepted in her international diplomatic endeavors.

We don't know what would have happened had Segolene Royal defeated Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 and become the president of France. At the time she was living with her unmarried partner of over 30 years, with whom she had four children. (They have since separated).

Now imagine an American election campaign. A politician aspiring for high office at the state or federal level here could not possibly run as a member of a happy, but unmarried, couple. Then again Australia had a openly gay high court justice, Michael Kirby, until his retirement last year, and I'm not holding my breath for that here. I wish Prime Minister Gillard lots of luck with the coalition she has put together (and I'm glad she's restored the cabinet position of minister of aboriginal health -- did she think the problems of the stolen generation had been solved??). I'm betting that she stays unmarried. Tarja Halonen might think I'm being naive.

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