Six or seven out of 10. That’s what Tony Abbott gets for his conciliation session with the gay community on radio this morning, where he gave “in principle” support to anti-discrimination legislation and a same-sex relationships register.

After Abbott admitted to feeling “threatened” by gay people in his much-maligned 60 Minutes interview, Corey Irlam, from the Australian Coalition for Equality, has been holding the Opposition leader’s hand as he copes with being, as he told Melbourne’s Joy 94.9 today, “a 52-year-old bloke with a fairly traditional background”. Irlam gives the former Catholic scholar credit.

“He fronted up, he explained his view, he talked about it, and I thought very candidly,” Irlam told Crikey after Abbott’s radio confessional.

Prominent gay lobbyist Rodney Croome gives Abbott a six out of 10. “He deserves a pass mark for his willingness to discuss LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] issues more than Kevin Rudd, and for supporting much-needed s-xuality discrimination laws,” he told Crikey.

“But I can’t go higher because he leaves it to Labor to actually take the initiative on law reform. That says to me that as PM Abbott would probably be as inactive on LGBT issues as Howard was.”

Abbott admitted to a “very poor choice of words” on 60 Minutes. Though, he told presenter Doug Pollard today: “I think blokes of my generation and upbringing do find these things a bit confronting. Anything that’s a bit different can be confronting.”

Abbott pleaded for time to, “I suppose, come to a more balanced and nuanced understanding of these things”. “Don’t hang me, please Doug, for an ill-chosen word,” he said.

“Yes, I am quite a conservative bloke. I do have a traditional background but it doesn’t mean I’m incapable of understanding the complexity of modern life.”

Gay groups have immediately welcomed Abbott’s apparent support for anti-discrimination legislation. He told Joy he was personally “not against the idea…in principle I would support it”.

Irlam says the ball is now back in the government’s court: if Abbott won’t stand in the way, Attorney-General Robert McCleland should implement recommendations put forward last year by the National Human Rights Commission to legislate against discrimination based on sexuality.

“He now has in-principle support from the opposition,” Irlam said.

Paul Martin, chair of the national LGBT Health Alliance, says there has been a political culture that prevents leaders from speaking out against sexual discrimination, but “I think the tide has now turned and there is a growing recognition the LGBT community is in need and it should be addressed like other equity groups”.

Martin wants particular attention paid to health and aged care issues in the gay community. Abbott says he’ll consider it.

“This is a new issue for me,” the Liberal leader told Joy. “I would probably want to consider how that is best done in practice before being prescriptive. What I would want to see is a practice that works for people.”

Abbott says conservativism should embrace “stable, enduring relationships” — including same-sex partners. He told Joy he’s “open” to looking at civil unions and a domestic partnership register that doesn’t undermine traditional marriage.

“A modern conservative philosophy acknowledges if you’re going to be fair dinkum about family values it can’t just be traditional relationships.

“I’m in favour of people keeping their commitments to people. I would be very sympathetic to something that encourages that across the board. I would like to see a way for gay relationships to be celebrated, acknowledged and recognised, but precisely how that is best done needs to be discussed widely.”

And who are Abbott’s “very close” gay friends? He outed a couple: journalist Christopher Pearson and former High Court judge Michael Kirby — “a friend and at times a bit of a mentor to me”. Catholic Cardinal George Pell is a friend too, a “vastly more compassionate man than is normally the stereotype” despite his outspoken views on homosexuality.

“I think [Catholicism] gets translated into dry legalism and that’s a pity,” Abbott said.

“Don’t assume that I don’t know gay people and don’t assume that there is this caricature in my mind that is entirely represented by the floats at the Mardi Gras.”

Peter Fray

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