Redefining a partnership


The Macquarie Dictionary has struggled with relationships over the years. Who would have thought the definition of family could be so complicated!  When the family was mum, dad and the kids living together, the lexicography seemed simple. Then the family became the blended family which had its own entry. But when the family could be mum, mum and the kids or dad, dad and the kids, the definitional structure could no longer stretch far enough.  And when the family might have one parent and the kids living together while the other lived somewhere else, the notion that the family constituted a social unit sharing the same roof collapsed.


More recently we wondered if we would be doing a rewrite of the definition of marriage – a simple rewrite making it gender neutral, or one requiring the addition of a whole host of complex invented terms like civil partnership and domestic relationship and registered relationship


In the end, the simple rewrite was all that was required. Marriage is the legal union of two people.  Two people rather than a man and a woman. There was talk that broadening the basis of legal marriage would lead inevitably to an exchange of vows between human and animal, but 'two people' would seem to exclude that possibility.


But now, in the wake of the Barnaby Joyce/Vikki Compton situation, our politicians have forced us to contemplate the meaning of partner in the context of that other complex term – relationship.  These are the words that were meant to solve the problem of not knowing whether we were dealing with a husband and wife or two people in a relationship not sanctified by marriage.  We shunned the earlier term de facto as bringing with it a lot of social baggage that in these enlightened days we could do without.  People could be presented to the world as partners without us having to grill them as to whether they were married or not.


If someone is introduced as ‘my partner’,  then, if we can exclude business partner, I think we would assume a sexual relationship of some permanence.


Otherwise it is a case of ‘we are just good friends’, but I am not sure that politicians can claim travel expenses for ‘just good friends’.


It will be interesting to see what skill in definition-writing the Australian Parliament can demonstrate. Can it produce definitions with wiggle room to accommodate spouses, partners and just good friends?