Australia's Labor government indicated that it could intervene to override Tasmania's state law after the Tasmanian Liberal (conservative) government said it would not be bound by the UN decision. Tasmania is the only one of Australia's six states where consenting sex between male adults is still a crime. Legislation passed in 1924 outlaws 'sexual intercourse with any person against the order of nature' and carries a penalty of 21 years in prison.
Nick Toonen, 28, a homosexual activist in Hobart, the Tasmanian capital, took a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee 18 months ago alleging that Tasmania's law left him open to discrimination at work, to a threat of his privacy being violated by police legally invading his home, and to vilifiction on grounds of his sexual orientation. His complaint had support from the federal government and from gay rights groups. As group members celebrated the UN ruling last night, Mr Toonen said: 'It's the beginning of the end for Tasmania's anti-gay laws.' But Ronald Cornish, Tasmania's Attorney-General, said the state government had no intention of repealing the criminal code banning homosexual sex, and claimed public opinion in the island supported it. 'We don't believe the decision made by the Human Rights Committee is appropriate for Tasmania,' he said. 'We don't believe any human rights committee of faceless people in another part of the world should make decisions for this state without accountability.'
The UN decision has put pressure on the federal government, led by Paul Keating, to bring Tasmania into line with the rest of Australia. The decision means that Tasmania has been found to be in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Australia is a signatory, and which forms a basis for Canberra's criticisms of human rights violations in other countries.
The federal government could override Tasmania by using its powers under the constitution to fulfil Australia's international treaty obligations. It successfully made such an intervention 11 years ago to stop the Tasmanian government from flooding the World Heritage listed Franklin River.
Michael Lavarch, the federal Attorney-General, said last night: 'Governments have to meet international standards. It's not good enough for a state government to thumb its nose at an international body of this stature and do nothing about it.'