Gays and lesbians should be grateful they’re not still being thrown in prison -“ that’s the message from treasurer Peter Costello, who outraged gay rights activists at a speech in Sydney last week.

Costello made the comments when questioned about discrimination against same-sex couples, including the marriage ban, by TV presenter and lesbian mum Dr Kerryn Phelps.

I think we do recognise the rights of gay and lesbian people in Australia, Costello told the audience at the Sydney Institute function, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

We do not criminalise conduct or behaviour.

He went on to mention the government’s recent law change giving same-sex partners access to each other’s superannuation.

The treasurer then added he believed marriage had always been between a man and a woman only and always would be.

Phelps told Sydney Star Observer she was appalled and surprised by Costello’s comments.

When he started out by basically saying we should be grateful we’re not locked up any more I couldn’t believe it, she said.

Then he started talking about the fact gay men and lesbians in Australia did pretty well, and that they’d changed the superannuation laws. Yes, they did that and it’s great, but they stopped at that.

Phelps, who had been in the audience at the event, said she felt compelled to speak up after Costello mentioned respecting the rights of all Australian citizens.

There are not equal rights for every Australian citizen if you happen to be in a same-sex relationship, and if you want your relationship recognised and your children to have rights, she told the Star.

If anything positive had come out of the incident it was that he had finally come clean on his feelings about gay rights, Phelps said.

David Scamell of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby said Costello’s comments highlight the fact senior ministers in the Howard government have a lack of understanding of what equality means for same-sex couples.

He expects that gays and lesbians should be grateful for the fact that our relationships are now decriminalised, Scamell said.

It really highlights the difference between us and places like the UK and Spain, where their prime ministers introduced comprehensive relationship recognition.

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