Centrelink no longer recognises polyamorous or multiple relationships

In December 2016, the Parliamentary Library published a FlagPost explaining how people in multiple relationships—those with more than one partner—were treated for social security purposes. At the time, social security policy recognised that individuals could be in a de facto relationship with more than one person at a time and could treat each relationship as a separate couple relationship. In August 2018, the Department of Social Services policy guide was updated to state: ‘The Australian social security system does NOT recognise the existence of multiple relationships’. This FlagPost replaces the incorrect 2016 one and examines the effect of the 2018 policy change.

Social security and relationships

Social security payments are paid to individuals but eligibility for certain payments and rates of payment can be affected by whether a person is considered to be a member of a couple. For example, partnered payment rates are generally lower than those for single people and a partner’s income and assets are assessed under the means tests which determine rates of payment. The differing treatment of partnered and single people is in recognition of the ability of couples to pool their resources and share living costs.

Under Section 4 of the Social Security Act 1991, a person is considered a member of a couple if they are committed to another person on a permanent or indefinite basis, both persons 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 range of factors to determine whether a person is a member of a couple..

Pre-August 2018 treatment of multiple relationships

As outlined in the earlier FlagPost, government policy previously recognised the existence of multiple relationships. A 2017 version of the Social Security Guide stated: ‘The existence of a multiple relationship is not excluded by the definition of a de facto relationship in the SSAct [the Social Security Act 1991]’.

The policy treated each member of a multiple relationship as partnered for the purposes of determining eligibility for a payment and would pay each the partnered rate of a payment. Each person’s income and assets were assessed against the income and assets of each of their partners’ and the lowest rate payable was applied.

The policy recognised that multiple relationships could exist, but did not necessarily endorse such relationships (multiple marriages are a criminal offence under section 94 of the Marriage Act 1961).

August 2018 policy change

On 28 August 2018, the section of the Social Security Guide which explained multiple relationships was deleted and new information was added to another section stating the social security system does not recognise multiple relationships. There was no announcement of a policy change by the Minister for Families and Social Services. It is unclear if the policy change was related to the appointment of a new Minister for Families and Social Services, Paul Fletcher, on 28 August 2018 (replacing Dan Tehan), following the appointment of Scott Morrison as Prime Minister on 24 August 2018.

Under the policy change, where an individual declares that they have more than one partner, they will be considered to be in a relationship with the person they are legally married to or in a registered relationship with. If they are not married or in a registered relationship, the relationship that commenced earliest will be recognised for social security purposes. Other partners would be considered ‘single’, eligible for the single rate of social security payments and not subject to the partner income test.

The relevant section of the Family Assistance Guide was not updated until May 2019 to state that the ‘social security system generally does not recognise the existence of multiple relationship’. Previously, this section explained how multiple relationships should be considered on a case-by-case basis but that the ‘central’ partner’s income would be included in the income calculations for each of the multiple partners and, ‘There is no discretion to split or apportion a central member's income between the multiple partners’.

Previous controversy

In 2016 and 2017, a number of politicians and media articles commented on the social security treatment of multiple relationships. The main concern behind this commentary was that the pre-2018 recognition of multiple relationships by Centrelink endorsed polygamy—including unregistered religious unions. The policy was criticised by Senator Cory Bernardi, Senator Pauline Hanson and Peta Credlin, the former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Effect of the 2018 policy change

The effect of the policy change is to provide some individuals in multiple relationships with increased payments. Some individuals who were previously considered partnered are now considered single and can receive a higher, single rate of payment and not have their unrecognised partners’ income and assets considered for means testing.

There is no publicly available data on how many people in multiple relationships are receiving social security.

An example, deliberately designed to emphasise the effect of the policy change:

  • Hank is living with two partners—Kathryn and Renée
  • Kathryn has two children with Hank, aged 1 and 3
  • Renée also has two children with Hank, aged 4 and 6
  • Hank earns $105,000 per year
  • Kathryn has no private income
  • Renée earns $40,000 per year
  • Hank and Kathryn formed a relationship first.

Under the pre-2018 policy (as applied in this 2017 Administrative Appeals Tribunal case), Hank and Kathryn would be treated as one couple and Hank and Renée as another couple. Hank’s income could not be split between the two partners so each separate income assessment under the income tests would include all of Hank’s income. Under the pre-2018 policy (but applying current rates and income testing), Hank and Kathryn would be eligible for a Family Tax Benefit Part A payment of around $2,800 per year but Hank and Renée would not be eligible for any payments as their combined income is too high.

Under the current multiple relationship policy, only Hank and Kathryn would be treated as a couple. Renée would be considered single for social security purposes and be eligible for Parenting Payment Single, Family Tax Benefit Part A and Family Tax Benefit Part B. Renée could receive around $27,400 per year in these payments.

As such, the policy change has the effect of providing a financial benefit to people in such relationships. The approach recalls the pre-2009 treatment of same-sex couples where social security law excluded those in same-sex relationships from being treated as members of a couple meaning they were entitled to higher, single rates of payment.


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

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