The Australian Capital Territory has become the first place in the country to legalise same-sex marriage.
After a short debate, the parliament for the ACT – which consists of Canberra and its immediate surrounds – passed a bill allowing gay couples to marry within the territory, no matter which state they live in.
However, Tony Abbott’s centre-right government immediately announced a High Court challenge, as federal law stipulates that marriage is between a man and a woman.
A public opponent of the challenge is Mr Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster, who has said she plans to marry her long-term gay partner.
Ms Forster, a councillor in Sydney, said in a television interview that she was engaged to Virginia Edwards, and called on her brother to allow his Liberal Party MPs a conscience vote if the issue comes before the federal parliament again. They were obliged to vote against a same-sex marriage bill in September last year, ensuring the legislation was defeated.
The move by the ACT is a direct challenge to the federal government. The latter believes that only it – and not the states and territories – can legislate on marriage. The Attorney-General, George Brandis, warned yesterday that couples who wed in the ACT might find their marriages invalid.
Mostly, though, it was a day for celebrating, with a packed public gallery bursting into a rendition of “Love is in the Air” as the territory’s legislative assembly passed the new law. The Deputy Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, who is gay, tearfully acknowledged “the sacrifice, the suffering, the struggle and the tireless exertions … of gay and lesbian Canberrans, their parents and their families”.
Mr Abbott is firmly opposed to same-sex marriage, and during the recent election campaign angered many by describing it as a “fashion of the moment”. Although he is close to his sister, the pair disagree vehemently on this issue.
In the interview on Channel Nine, Ms Forster said she hoped to get married in Sydney, preferably under federal law. New South Wales, along with other state governments, is contemplating following the ACT’s example.
The leader of the Australian Greens, Christine Milne, urged the federal government to abandon its legal action. “My message to Tony Abbott and George Brandis is: get out of the way. You are on the wrong side of history,” she said.