After a heated meeting of the Cabinet on Monday, the final decision about whether gay and lesbian couples in Australia will be given equal rights will be made by Prime Minister John Howard.

His senior government colleagues are split on the issue. Some feel it is not a priority for the government ahead of elections later this year and are concerned about the cost of reforms.

Other Cabinet members, especially those with sizable gay communities in their constituencies, argue that equal provision in areas such as Medicare and pensions must be in place before going to the polls.

Last week an MP from the ruling Liberal party, Warren Entsch, presented Mr Howard with a petition signed by 25,000 Australians demanding that the law be changed in favour of equality.

Prime Minister Howard was reported earlier in the week to be “quite supportive” of the changes.

A report from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) was presented to the federal parliament in June.

It listed the 58 laws that need to be changed to grant gay, bisexual and lesbian Australians equal rights.

Despite hopes that those inequalities may be addressed by the Howard government, gay marriage is still off the agenda.

Not only is it not supported by the Liberals but last week the opposition Labour party came out against any form of gay unions.

The HREOC report found that same-sex couples and families in Australia get fewer leave entitlements, less workers’ compensation, fewer tax concessions, fewer veterans’ entitlements, fewer health care subsidies, less superannuation and pay more for residential aged care than opposite-sex couples in the same circumstances.

The report traced this pervasive inequality back to how lesbian and gay couples are excluded from federal law’s definitions of couples, partners and spouses.

If Mr Howard does decide to push forward reforms, it will mark a change of attitude towards gay rights.