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Lawmakers May Get Australia Gay Marriage Free Vote

Australian Same-Sex Marriage
A signboard urging support of gay marriage attracts passersby in downtown Sydney. Photographer: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

Liberal Party lawmakers in Australia’s ruling coalition may win a free vote on same-sex marriage, raising the prospect of changes after the nation’s top court ruled such ceremonies performed this month were invalid.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Liberals, which lead a coalition government with the smaller National Party, will probably let legislators vote however they choose on the issue, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said yesterday.

Campaigners are urging members of parliament to cooperate on a change to national laws that could see Australia follow the U.K., Canada, France and South Africa in allowing same-sex unions. Legislation passed by the government of the Australian Capital Territory to permit same-sex unions was ruled inconsistent with federal laws by the High Court on Dec. 12, effectively nullifying about 30 weddings performed this month.

“The Liberal Party and the Coalition generally should allow a free vote on the issue of same-sex marriage, or marriage equality, and I support that,” Turnbull said in an interview with Sky News. “I think it is likely that we will, but as Tony Abbott has said, it’s a decision for the party room and not for him.”

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s bill to allow same-sex marriage in England and Wales passed in July, after France enacted similar legislation in May. Canada and South Africa made gay marriage legal in 2005. In the U.S., 15 states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex unions.

‘Out of Step’

“People of the same sex can get married in Auckland and Wellington, Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver, in New York and Los Angeles, in Baltimore, in Cape Town, but not in Australia,” Turnbull said. “It does start to look as though we are the ones out of step.”

Australia adopted a federal Marriage Act in 1961 to replace a number of state laws that regulated marriage and divorce. Abbott’s government argued to the High Court that it was the federal government’s role to define wedlock and ensure that definition is uniform nationwide.

Amendments to the law to allow same-sex marriage were rejected in Australia’s lower house in a September 2012 vote, when Abbott’s Liberal Party asked legislators to vote against the bill. Labor Party lawmakers were permitted to vote according to their beliefs.

“If legislation comes before the Parliament it will be dealt with by our party room in the usual way,” Abbott told reporters in Sydney yesterday. “When legislation came before the last Parliament it was fairly decisively dealt with.”

Improved Chances

Allowing Liberal Party and National Party lawmakers to join Labor in voting in line with their conscience would raise the chance of reform, said Rodney Croome, the national director for lobby group Australian Marriage Equality.

“It doesn’t just look like we are out of step. We are out of step, and out of step with our closest friends and allies,” Croome said.

Tanya Plibersek, deputy leader of the opposition Labor Party, will attempt to introduce a bill seeking to legislate for same-sex marriage if Abbott agrees to offer his legislators a free vote, she was quoted yesterday as telling The Age newspaper.

Liberal Party legislators have indicated a willingness to hold a free vote on the issue in recent meetings with interest groups, Croome said

“With a cross-party conscience vote, reform has a fighting chance, but the outcome at this stage is very unpredictable,” Croome said by phone. “That’s why it’s so important that people who support reform in each of the different parties work together.”

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