Polygamy, multiple relationships and welfare

This FlagPost has received an updated revision in February 2023, to access the new version click here.

Recent media reports have raised an issue with the access to welfare payments by Muslim people in multiple relationships. This FlagPost sets out the status of such relationships under social security law and how such relationships affect social security entitlements.

Marriage and multiple relationships

Australian law recognises both marriages and de facto relationships. While bigamy is a criminal offence (under section 94 of the Marriage Act 1961), it is not an offence to have multiple simultaneous de facto relationships. As noted in the various media reports on this issue, the polygamous ‘Islamic marriages’ described are not legal marriages but informal religious unions. Such ‘marriages’ would not be recognised as legal marriage under Australian law but the relationships between the different partners may be recognised as de facto relationships.

Social security and relationships

Social security payments are paid to individuals. Additional amounts paid to income support recipients with dependent spouses were phased out in 1994—replaced by payments paid directly to the spouses.

Eligibility for certain payments and rates of payment can be affected by whether or not a person is considered to be a member of a couple. Under the Social Security Act 1991, a person is considered a member of a couple if they are living with another person on a permanent or indefinite basis, both of them are over the age of consent, they are not in a prohibited (incestuous) relationship, and they are either:

  • legally married
  • in a registered relationship or
  • in a de facto relationship.

Centrelink will consider a number of factors to determine whether a person is a member of a couple including financial aspects, the nature of the household, social aspects, whether or not there is a sexual relationship and the nature of the commitment.

Since 1 July 2009, same-sex de facto relationships have been recognised under social security law.

The differing rates of payment and means test treatment of partnered and single people are in recognition of the ability of couples to pool their resources and share living costs. As the Guide to Social Security Law states, ‘It is a longstanding provision of the social security system that members of a couple should rely on one another for support before calling on the resources of the general community’.

Social security and multiple relationships

Social security law recognises that a person can be in a de facto relationship with more than one person at a time. These are termed ‘multiple relationships’. An assessment as to whether a person is a member of a couple is conducted in respect of each relationship.

Members of a multiple relationship would receive the partnered rate of payment which is lower than the single rate. For example, the basic single Newstart Allowance rate is currently $528.70 per fortnight while the member of a couple rate is $477.40 per fortnight.

Members of a multiple relationship are also considered partnered for the purposes of the income and assets tests. Each person’s income and assets are assessed against the income and assets of each of their partners and the lowest rate payable is applied.

Each member of a multiple relationship would be considered partnered for the purpose of determining eligibility for a benefit—so, for example, where there are dependent children, each member would be considered for Parenting Payment Partnered rather than Parenting Payment Single.

Family payments, such as Family Tax Benefit, are paid in respect of children with the payment provided to the person who has responsibility for the day-to-day care, welfare and development of the child. Only one member of a couple can receive Family Tax Benefit. Family assistance claims in multiple relationships are determined on a case-by-case basis by Centrelink, taking into account the individual circumstances of the family and who is considered primarily responsible for providing care to the child.

Rules recognise the complexity of Australian families

In recognising multiple relationships, social security law recognises the existence of legal de facto relationships involving more than two people at the same time. In applying the law and paying benefits to some of those in such relationships, the point is to ensure that the circumstances of claimants are accurately assessed in the same way as single people and those in couple relationships. As a spokesperson for the Department of Human Services stated in one of the media reports: ‘customers with multiple partners are assessed exactly the same as any other person, under Australian law … there are no additional payments for having multiple partners’.

Recognising the existence of multiple relationships in Australia is consistent with key objectives of the social security system. By accurately assessing the resources available to those in multiple relationships, welfare payments are targeted at those who need and are entitled to them.

Changing the social security treatment of those in multiple relationships could potentially mean providing them with higher rates of benefit (as single rather than partnered recipients), increasing the number of people eligible for payments (through a more favourable means test treatment), excluding some people from income support on the basis of their relationship status, or introducing a new payment structure specific to this group.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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