Australian Capital Territory legalises same-sex marriage

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) yesterday legalised same-sex marriage, the first time a jurisdiction in Australia has done so.

Chief Minister Katy Gallagher
Image: ACT Government.
ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell
Image: Graeme Bartlett.
ACT Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury
Image: Champion Blue.

The ACT Legislative Assembly passed the legalising bill 8–7, with seven Australian Labor Party members being joined by the ACT Greens' Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Shane Rattenbury. It was opposed by six Liberal Party of Australia members. Two of the Assembly's seventeen members, one Liberal and one Labor, were absent.

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell made a series of last-minute amendments to ensure that the bill would survive a possible court challenge. The legislation allows same-sex couples from all over Australia to marry in the ACT.

Chief Minister Katy Gallagher said the government would strive toward treating everyone equally and fairly under the law depite the threat of legal challenge. Gay Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr spoke with feeling about the impact the legislation would have on same-sex couples.

Local Federal Member of Parliament Andrew Leigh, a strong supporter of rights for same-sex couples, applauded the bill, but Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott has indicated his government will challenge the bill in the High Court of Australia. Abbot's sister Christine Forster, a Liberal Party Sydney City Councillor, who is gay, called for Liberals at the federal level to be allowed a conscience vote.

The ACT previously passed a bill providing for civil unions in 2006, which was disallowed by the Governor General of Australia on the advice of then-Prime Minister John Howard. The bill was passed again after Howard lost office in 2007, but marriage-like provisions were removed from the act under threat of being disallowed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Rudd now supports same-sex marriage.

This avenue for disallowing ACT legislation was closed in 2011, when Greens Senator Bob Brown initiated a reform bill taking away the Governor General's ability to disallow territory bills. At present, Tony Abbott does not command a majority in the Senate, so a High Court challenge is an easier option than legislation. The Constitution of Australia, Section 51(xxi), gives the Commonwealth government — federal government — power to make laws with respect to marriage. The Howard government amended the Commonwealth Marriage Act in 2004 to exclude gay marriages.

This story has updates
See High Court strikes down Australian Capital Territory same-sex marriage law, December 14, 2013