On balance, Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement that the Coalition will grant equal superannuation entitlements to the same-sex partners of federal employees is an important step forward.

Since the last election the Howard Government has slowly and quietly rolled out recognition of these partners as interdependents in a handful of areas like private super schemes, some defence force benefits and the skilled migration program.

Turnbull’s announcement holds out hope that this will continue if the Coalition is re-elected.

It also brings pressure to bare on Labor. It has a more progressive policy of recognising same-sex couples as de factos across the almost-60 federal laws which currently discriminate against them, plus introducing relationship registries at a state level.

But Kevin Rudd has conspicuously failed to spruik this policy, focussing instead on the ALP’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

Worse, Labor this week backed off its former commitment to a national law preventing discrimination on the grounds of sexuality in areas like employment, housing and education. Turnbull’s splash will force the ALP to strengthen its commitment to reform.

There are serious questions still to be answered about Turnbull’s commitment.

Will the Coalition allow bereaved same-sex partners to receive pension benefits as well as lump-sum death payments? Will reform cover all current and retired federal employees or only those be who begin contributing after the change occurs?

Most important of all, when will superannuation reform happen? The Howard Government promised this reform three years ago but has regularly deferred it on the basis that it’s still doing the sums.

After repeatedly raising and dashing the hopes of its gay and lesbian employees, the Government faces an uphill battle to convince them this time it’s sincere.

If I were Malcolm Turnbull I’d begin this bridge-building by highlighting the behind-the-scenes education campaign on same-sex entitlements within Coalition ranks led by retiring Qld MP Warren Entsch but also involving several other leading Liberals including Turnbull himself.

In my 20 years as a gay rights advocate I’ve rarely seen MPs work as hard or as successfully to convince their often-skeptical colleagues to support entitlements for same-sex couples.

Entsch and his brave band have brought the Coalition further than anyone expected, bequeathing the real hope it will move further regardless of the result on Nov 24th.

Beyond all the details of death benefits, legislative timetables and partisan advantage, the message I take from Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement is that patient persuasion works.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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