Robert McClelland is continuing a fine ALP tradition in announcing legislation to remove discrimination against same-sex couples in Commonwealth laws and programs.

The reforms are long overdue, and more than just the symbolism we like to bag the Rudd Government for. They will make a substantial difference to many gay and lesbian couples, although there are undoubtedly some who may be worse off as a consequence of the tighter household income rules that will flow from the changes. However, McClelland has ducked the issues of adoption, surrogacy and IVF and deferred to the States on them, only urging national uniformity.

But the changes are also an inspired political wedge of which former Attorney-General Michael Lavarch would be proud. In 1994, Lavarch introduced the Human Rights (S-xual Conduct) Act 1994, one of the shorter, sweeter and more politically fruitful pieces of legislation produced during the Keating years. It over-rode the Tasmanian Parliament’s refusal to decriminalise homosexuality, and sent the Opposition into remarkable spasms as it tried to work out how to respond, with homophobes hastily invoking states’ rights as a figleaf for their bigotry.

McClelland’s reforms also have a strong policy rationale, and will also make life difficult for the Coalition. Indeed, the Coalition doesn’t need much help from anyone to wedge itself on same-s-x couples. Not long before the election, the Howard Government embarrassed itself when, despite the efforts of Malcolm Turnbull, Brendan Nelson, Joe Hockey and Philip Ruddock, Cabinet very publicly decided not to proceed with the removal of same-s-x discrimination in the face of concerted lobbying from Christian groups. The Rudd Government has commendably ignored the likes of the Australian Christian Lobby this time around.

Brendan Nelson has indicated “in-principle support” for the changes, although on past form he’s likely to contradict himself next time he opens his mouth. Whether party conservatives, especially in the “Rule 1: No Pooftahs” enclave of the National Party, are quite so happy to back this, particularly when the Government reveals the price tag on Budget Night, remains to be seen.

If the cost runs into the tens of millions of dollars, and without the States’ rights argument to use, look for reactionaries to hide their homophobia behind a concern for the budget bottom (no pun intended) line.