Pressure Grows In Australia To Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

There's growing pressure in Australia for the government to legalize gay marriage after New Zealand became the 13th country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage earlier this month. Last year, a vote on the issue in Australia's parliament failed to change the law and both political party leaders — the unmarried, atheist Prime Minister who lives with her long-term boyfriend and the staunchly Catholic opposition leader who once studied to become a priest — remain officially opposed to gay marriage. But many believe public and political pressure may have reached a tipping point on the issue in the wake of New Zealand's vote.

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There's growing pressure in Australia to legalize same-sex marriage. That's after neighboring New Zealand did so just last month. As Stuart Cohen reports from Sydney, several high-profile opponents in Australia have now changed their views and many believe public opinion has reached a tipping point.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The ayes are 77. The nos are 44.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

STUART COHEN, BYLINE: When New Zealand's parliament voted to legalize same-sex marriage, the celebrations were heard across the Tasman Sea in Australia.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: New Zealand says I do to gay marriage, as Australian supporters push for change here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Same-sex couples say they're making plans to cross the ditch to get hitched.

COHEN: Australian couples by the hundreds are now expected to make the three-hour flight to New Zealand to get married. Emma Mansel(ph) and her partner, Sarah Louise Hopkins, are one of those couples.

EMMA MANSEL: Just knowing somewhere in my heart that we are allowed to get married somewhere else in the world, even though it's not in Australia, it's a very special thing. And we just want to have that respect and understanding.

COHEN: But when Mansel and Hopkins return home, that marriage won't be recognized under Australian law. In fact, last September, Australia's parliament overwhelmingly defeated a bill to allow same-sex marriage.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Forty-two, 98. You won. They lost. OK?

COHEN: Even though polls show a majority of the public supports it. To be sure, there are some highly vocal opponents to gay marriage, especially among religious groups. But even at this busy shopping mall in Australia's conservative state of Queensland, it was hard to find anyone who thinks its time hasn't come, from teenagers like Jack Mitchell...

JACK MITCHELL: If you love someone and you know that's the way you feel, well, you should have the right to be able to marry him. And that's not an issue in my books.

COHEN: ...to grandparents like Nerissa and Greg Dag(ph)...

NERISSA DAG: No one can come along and tell us that we can't love each other and can't be together. So what's the difference? What's the difference if it's two females or two males?

GREG DAG: Yup, it's just like religion - everyone has got their own.

COHEN: ...to young mothers like Donna Saga(ph).

DONNA SAGA: I have a gay sister-in-law who is technically married. (Laughing) And it'd be nice to be legal for her.

COHEN: New Zealand's vote has given supporters renewed hope. Australia's Green Party, the only one to officially support same-sex marriage, has introduced legislation to at least make overseas marriages valid in Australia. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is the bill's sponsor.

SENATOR SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: Having to leave their marriage at the customs gate just isn't fair. We need to change the legislation to ensure that we recognize the marriages of couples, whether they are from New Zealand, Canada, New York.

COHEN: Advocates say it's not just a civil rights issue, it's an economic one, too. Rodney Croome is president of Australians for Marriage Equality. He says at a time when Australia's tourism industry is suffering, the country can't afford to let this opportunity go.

RODNEY CROOME: It's been estimated that if same-sex couples were allowed to marry in Australia tomorrow, they would spend at least $700 million on their weddings. A lot of that wedding spend will now go to New Zealand.

COHEN: Same-sex couples in Australia already enjoy wide-ranging rights and benefits, including civil unions. Marriage, however, has been a sticking point. But now, even long-time opponents are reconsidering.

BARRY O'FARRELL: This is a personal view expressed by someone whose position has changed.

COHEN: Barry O'Farrell is the conservative premier, or governor, of Australia's most populous state, New South Wales. His change of heart, along with that of another conservative premier, has been called a game-changer in the debate.

O'FARRELL: We should be encouraging people to have commitment and family units. So to recognize that government through marriage does acknowledge commitment and loving relationships with certain people in the community, and that should be extended to all people in the community.

COHEN: The country's two main party leaders, Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard - an unmarried atheist who lives with her long-term boyfriend - and conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott, a staunch Catholic who once studied to be a priest, both remain opposed to gay marriage. But with a federal election scheduled for September and polls suggesting a landslide victory for the conservatives, Abbott - whose sister recently came out as lesbian - has indicated his party may be open to change.

TONY ABBOTT: It was fairly decisively rejected by the current parliament. I accept that future parliaments may come to a different conclusion.

COHEN: When New Zealand gave women the right to vote in the 1800s, it took Australia nine years to follow suit. Same-sex marriage supporters say they hope it doesn't take that long for Australia to catch up to its smaller neighbor once again.

For NPR News, I'm Stuart Cohen in Sydney.

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