British couple David (left) and Marco Bulmer-Rizzi were on honeymoon in Adelaide when David died. Marco was initially told his late husband’s status would be recorded on a South Australian death certificate as ‘never married.
The British high commission has said an English man who died while on honeymoon in Adelaide will be registered as married on his death certificate, after the South Australian premier apologised for the “awfully insensitive” treatment of his widower.
Though the couple, from Sunderland, had married in London last year, Marco Bulmer-Rizzi was told David’s death certificate would state never married and he was not recognised as next of kin.
The state’s premier, Jay Weatherill, gave Bulmer-Rizzi his personal guarantee that his husband’s death certificate would be reissued with his correct marital status, and that legislation would be passed to recognise overseas same-sex marriages in South Australia.
I was obviously very ashamed that he’d had this experience in South Australia, my home state, Weatherill told Guardian Australia.
Weatherill said that the births, deaths and marriages department of South Australia’s Department of Consumer and Business Services had felt constrained by state law to identify David Bulmer-Rizzi as unmarried.
At a time when [Marco’s] grappling with the loss of someone he loved, when they were in Australia celebrating their honeymoon – that was obviously awfully insensitive.
Weatherill said it was fortunate Marco had a positive relationship with his father-in-law, Nigel Bulmer, who was tasked with being David’s next of kin. That didn’t prove to be a difficulty, but it could have been. It just amounted to another layer of disrespect at a time when he should have been treated with sensitivity.
David had also donated his organs. And here we are, treating him with disrespect at a time when he’s acting with almost the ultimate respect for the people of South Australia. All of that was obviously very distressing to [Marco] and deeply shaming for us.
David (left) and Marco Bulmer-Rizzi in Australia the day before an accident in which David died. Photograph: None
Menna Rawlings, the British high commissioner to Australia, thanked Weatherill for committing to amending the legislation, and said Marco would be recognised as David Bulmer-Rizzi’s next of kin and husband.
A spokesman for the British high commission in Canberra said staff in Australia and the UK had the “greatest sympathy” for Bulmer-Rizzi and had been working to find a practical solution.
In this exceptional case, we have now put in place a process to issue a death registration quickly once an application is received, the spokesman said.
Asked if this was unprecedented, he said he was not aware of any other similar cases. A consular death registration is not a UK death certificate, but will register David and Marco’s status as a married couple in the UK public record.
Australian Marriage Equality national director, Rodney Croome, said he understood that Weatherill’s commitment had restored some of [Marco Bulmer-Rizzi’s] faith in Australia.
Marco had thought of Australia as a tolerant and inclusive place … [that] was restored a bit by Weatherill’s actions and the great support that he’s got from lots of ordinary people in Adelaide, Croome said.
He understands that ordinary people are in support of this, it’s the government that’s out of step.
Same-sex marriage is not legal across Australia, however only South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory do not recognise overseas same-sex marriages.
Weatherill said more legislation to amend state laws that discriminated on the grounds of sexuality would be introduced to the parliament this year.
South Australian MP and government frontbencher Christopher Pyne told ABC radio on Thursday that not recognising overseas same-sex marriages was outdated and anachronistic as well as offensive to Bulmer-Rizzi.
Weatherill said Pyne’s support could indicate “an emerging consensus around changing the law to remedy that problem” at a federal level. But for as long as marriage equality remained illegal in Australia, said both Weatherill and Croome separately, tinkering with existing laws could only ever be an interim measure.
The federal Marriage Act expressly prohibits any Australian government from recognising overseas same-sex marriages as marriages.
In authorising the marriages of heterosexual couples, celebrants are also required to state section 46 of the act, known as the “monitum”: “Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”.
The narrow definition was introduced by amendment bill in 2004 by parliament to rule out the possibility of same-sex unions.
The federal Coalition government has proposed a plebiscite on marriage equality after the next federal election, due to be held this year, but has not specified how the result will influence any legislation.
The proposed plebiscite was an awkward compromise brokered by Tony Abbott in the dying days of his leadership, said Weatherill. He said he was in favour of marriage equality and would be agitating for more clarity on the issue at a federal level. If the federal government didn’t want to move on marriage equality, it could essentially permit states to do it.
The superior solution would be that they would simply legislate for it … [but that] would require a change of government, or a change of attitude in the current one. Croome said the federal government’s reluctance to move on marriage equality was despite consistent polling in support of it.
I think it’s fair to say that seven out of 10 Australians support marriage equality, and that’s not only quite high for any social reform, it’s higher than in any other country with marriage equality, he said. So the people aren’t the problem. It’s the politicians.