Tasmania prepared to go it alone on marriage equality
It could soon be a race to the altar for the first state or territory in Australia to introduce marriage equality, with Tasmania’s Government over the weekend signalling it would bring in same-sex marriage laws during its current term of office, leading to calls by the ACT Government that it too may follow suit.
Marriage equality advocates have hailed the movement on the issue in the last few days as significant with Australian Marriage Equality (AME) national convener, Alex Greenwich, saying reform at a national level would most likely accelerate as well.
Speaking at the Tasmanian state Labor conference on Saturday, Tasmania’s Premier Lara Giddings (pictured) said the state which was the last in Australia to decriminalise homosexuality in 1997 could become the first to offer equal marriage laws if federal counterparts failed to act.
“Labor has a proud history of tackling discrimination and introducing important social reform,” she said.
“I expect the rest of the country will be watching closely as we work through this process.
“It is my hope that the Commonwealth Parliament will also act on this issue in the not too distant future, noting that there is support for same-sex unions on all sides of federal politics.”
Giddings said advice from the state’s Solicitor-General and constitutional expert Professor George Williams from the University of NSW suggested states could pass their own laws on same-sex marriage due to changes by former Prime Minister John Howard to the federal Marriage Act in 2004 to exclude same-sex couples.
Giddings has indicated the Tasmanian Government’s proposed legislation would allow for same-sex couples from interstate to also make use of the state’s marriage laws.
A HIGH COURT CHALLENGE?
The legislation is expected to easily pass Tasmania’s Lower House with the support of the Greens, with the test to come in the Upper House with only five MLCs of the 15-member Legislative Council openly supporting the proposal.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Deputy Prime Minster Wayne Swan have both refused to be drawn into debate on whether the Federal Government would launch a High Court challenge should the legislation be passed into law. Federal Labor MP John Murphy and Tasmanian Senator Helen Polley, both of whom oppose marriage equality, have however urged for a federal challenge.
“It sets a dangerous precedent if the states try to roll the Commonwealth,” Murphy said.
Marriage law in Australia had been covered by state law until 1961, before the Commonwealth took on the powers under “concurrent law”. Under such shared powers, it remains possible for states to enact their own laws on aspects not covered by federal laws.
Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group spokesperson, Rodney Croome, who is also campaign director for AME, said despite concerns of a High Court challenge it was a historic moment for both Tasmania and the LGBTI community nationally.
"Nationally, pressure for marriage equality will increase as couples married in Tasmania demand recognition from other Australian governments, and as it becomes clear that the sky doesn't fall in when same-sex partners wed,” Croome said.
“To those people who say this is too much of a risk, and holds out false hope to same-sex couples, I say that there is much greater risk in not seizing this opportunity and moving forward.”
The state’s business community has also got behind the legislation. Tasmanian Small Business Council (TSBC) executive officer Robert Mallett said same-sex marriage would be a big boost for local tourism.
“Modelling which has been provided to the TSBC demonstrates that Tasmania could benefit by the tune of $100 million if it adopts the principle of same sex marriage and is the first state to do so,” he said.
“The proposal seems sound and would help achieve what the vast majority of Tasmanian small businesses are saying...we need more customers.”
ACT GOVERNMENT TO FOLLOW?
The Tasmanian announcement has sparked hopes of marriage equality on the mainland as well with the ACT Government saying yesterday that it was watching developments closely.
ACT Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr said though the Government would be pushing on with its current bill to strengthen civil unions laws it was also keen to see same-sex marriage a reality.
“I think we should also examine what happens in Tasmania and be open to looking at a similar change to the law,” Barr said. “If that were the case then I would certainly be advocating for the law to allow non-ACT residents to come to the ACT.
“I think the Tasmanian Premier has a legitimate point in relation to the economic opportunities there.
“That’s certainly something I would pursue within the government as minister for Economic Development and Minister for Tourism.”
Alex Greenwich, from AME, said it seemed like the race was truly now on for the first region in Australia to legalise same-sex marriage.
“Mr Barr knows first-hand how meaningful this reform would be to couples in the ACT, and can see how beneficial the reform would be to the territory’s economy,” Greenwich said.
“The message to the Federal Parliament is clear – if you ignore the aspirations of the majority of Australians and fail to support this reform it will occur anyway, state by state and territory by territory.”
It is expected Federal Parliament will vote on a marriage equality bill sometime later this year.
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