Does today’s commitment from Robert McClelland to a timetable for removing legal discrimination against same-s-x de facto couples, leave the gay rights glass half full or half empty?

Same-s-x partners for whom existing discrimination spells financial disadvantage will welcome the announcement with relief. Particularly pleased will be those elderly and retired couples for whom financial security in pensions, superannuation and aged care is an urgent concern. All the states and territories have enacted equivalent reform. So have most other western countries. A whopping 72% of Australians support it. McClelland is right to label this law change “long overdue”.

On the other hand, the Government’s refusal to tackle marriage discrimination will only highlight this inequity. Particularly aggrieved will be those same-s-x couples who have married or become civil union partners overseas but whose solemn vows and legal status are not recognised in Australian law.

It would be wrong to underrate the importance of the Government’s move as tokenistic when it is so important to so many couples. It would also be wrong to call it “equality”, when that remains to be achieved. But most of all, it would be wrong to let this broader debate obscure important details of the current proposal which are yet to be resolved.

For example, will same-s-x couples involved in property or custody disputes have access to the Family Court? Will the Federal Government give full and equal recognition to partners who are in state civil unions like the ones currently available in Tasmania, soon in Victoria and (if the Feds stop road-blocking) in the ACT? Most importantly, will the Opposition wholeheartedly support reform, or will it unite with Family First to slow it down in the Senate?

Brendan Nelson has said he will support the Government if its proposal is “affordable and reasonable”. Does this mean he will balk at defining same-s-x partners as de factos and insist, like the former Government and against the wishes of the gay community, they be seen as “interdependents”? Does it mean he will balk at re-imbursing the tens of millions of dollars gay and lesbian Australians have lost because they make equal contributions to the public purse and public super schemes without receiving equal entitlements?

The urgency of this reform is too great to be jeopardised by quibbling and mean-spiritedness. Bipartisanship will send out an important anti-discrimination message, a message most Australians desperately want to hear.