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Tasmania’s Premier Lara Giddings will move to legalize same-sex marriage on the island, making it the first Australian state to approve gay unions and intensifying pressure on Prime Minister Julia Gillard to follow suit.
“We will be leading the way for the rest of Australia to follow,” Giddings, 39, told a ruling state Labor Party conference in Hobart on Aug. 4, vowing to make the change this term. “There are nations across the world who have already taken this step, some of whom that you would not believe would have done this in advance of a nation like our own.”
Gillard, 50, has drawn fire from gay marriage advocates and members of her own Labor party over her opposition to same-sex unions. Giddings highlighted the economic benefits of the change for Tasmania, which at 7.4 percent has the highest jobless rate among the nation’s eight states and territories, and more than double the 3.5 percent of mining powerhouse Western Australia.
“There is strong evidence that legislating for same sex marriage will provide a significant economic boost and create jobs for Tasmanians,” said Giddings, the youngest woman ever elected to an Australian parliament -- at age 23 in 1996 -- and the first female premier of the state.
Tasmania’s Labor Party governs in a coalition with the Greens -- like the federal government led by Gillard, the nation’s first female prime minister.
Greens founder and former leader Bob Brown was the first openly gay leader of an Australian political party. He retired from the Senate earlier this year. The Greens have been campaigning across the country in support of same-sex unions.
Gillard’s finance minister, Penny Wong, is the first openly gay female Cabinet minister in Australia and has voiced support for gay marriage. She recently became a parent with her partner.
The federal government plans to allow a conscience vote on gay marriage, a bill Gillard has said she intends to vote against. The prime minister reaffirmed her stance after U.S. President Barack Obama lent his support to same-sex unions.
Federal laws were amended in 2004 under conservative Prime Minister John Howard to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Giddings said in a statement that 11 countries recognize same-sex marriage including Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and Sweden. Jurisdictions in Mexico and the U.S. have introduced state-based laws, so there is precedent for the Tasmanian Labor Party’s position, she said.
Giddings said the government has received legal advice that Tasmania can pursue state-based changes. She also told conference delegates that the public’s attitudes to same-sex marriage had changed.
“I believe the community has reached that tipping point now where more people than not believe that this last form of discrimination should be removed,” she said.
Greens Leader Christine Milne yesterday urged the prime minister to rule out any constitutional challenge to the proposed Tasmanian laws. The party also urged Gillard to back a federal parliament bill legislating for same-sex unions.
Gillard, speaking in Cairns yesterday to announce the city will host the Group of 20 nations finance ministers meeting in 2014, reiterated the federal government’s intention to pursue a conscience vote.
“The Marriage Act is a federal law and we do have a bill before the federal parliament dealing with same-sex marriage,” she said. “People will be free to determine how they vote.”
Asked whether she would rule out a challenge to any possible changes in Tasmania, the prime minister said there wasn’t yet enough detail to decide on the matter.
Tasmania was the last Australian state or territory to decriminalize homosexual acts between consenting adult men in 1997.
Rodney Croome, a spokesman for the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group, said in a statement that Giddings’ pledge is a historic moment for Tasmania and for the gay community nationally.
“Tasmania will be more socially inclusive, we will build stronger relationships and families, our economy will benefit and we will dispel our lingering reputation for intolerance forever,” he said.
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