Members of Sydney’s gay community celebrate the news that the majority of Australians supported same-sex marriage in a national survey, on November 15 2017. Picture: REUTERS
Members of Sydney’s gay community celebrate the news that the majority of Australians supported same-sex marriage in a national survey, on November 15 2017. Picture: REUTERS

Sydney/Canberra — Australia is set to legalise same-sex marriage before the end of the year after voters emphatically backed the move in a nationwide survey.

"We must respect the voice of the people," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in Canberra on Wednesday after the country’s statistics office revealed 61.6% of respondents support marriage equality, with 38.4% opposed. "It is unequivocal. It is overwhelming."

Turnbull’s call to have the legislation passed by Christmas is supported by business, including Australia & New Zealand Banking Group, which says marriage equality would add A$650m ($496m) to the economy in the first year alone. But the right-leaning coalition government remains divided on the issue, with legislators arguing whether to let celebrants and other service providers opt out of marrying gay couples on religious grounds.

Alan Joyce, the gay CEO of Qantas Airways, who has been a passionate supporter of same-sex unions, called on parliament to respect the result and legislate swiftly.

"If this was a general election, it would be the biggest landslide in the Australian electoral history," Irish-born Joyce said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. "I am now amazingly proud of my adopted country, the country where I live, Australia."

The announcement by the Australian Bureau of Statistics was broadcast on giant screens in major cities throughout the nation, with the result welcomed by thousands of marriage equality supporters, many waving rainbow-coloured flags and dancing. In Canberra, senator Penny Wong, who has two children with her female partner, broke down in tears and was embraced by fellow legislators.

Gay-rights campaigners seized on the result, with the Marriage Equality campaign group saying Australia should quickly become the 25th nation to legalise same-sex unions. Almost 80% of voters, or more than 12 million people, took part in the survey, and the "yes" vote won in every state and territory.

Australia was increasingly isolated among western nations, with Germany, the US and Ireland recently joining countries including the UK and New Zealand in legalizing same-sex unions. Other nations to have permitted gay marriage are Brazil, Mexico and SA.

More than 30 business leaders this year petitioned the government to introduce legislation on same-sex marriage. The Australian economy would reap a windfall through the spin-off benefits from additional weddings, along with a slight boost to confidence, ANZ Bank said in September.

"We are absolutely thrilled on the vote today," Andy Vesey, the chief of Australia’s largest electricity generator AGL Energy, told a business audience in Sydney. "Celebrate and let’s get back to work because we’re not done. We still have to include. We have to make people feel welcome."

Advocates of same-sex unions criticised the government for holding the postal vote — saying the almost two-month campaign saw a surge in calls to mental-health helplines as opponents warned that changing the law could harm children and lead to radical sex education in schools.

Liberal senator Dean Smith has said he will introduce a bill to parliament this week to legalise same-sex marriage. But he may have to compete with another bill from conservative Liberal senator James Paterson that allows "conscientious objections" for people who do not wish to cater for gay weddings due to their religious beliefs.

The competing bills are causing a schism within the coalition, with treasurer Scott Morrison among legislators demanding protections for religious freedom.

"It would be a betrayal of the nation to allow the fears and phantoms of the ‘no’ campaign to set the terms for marriage equality legislation," veteran gay-rights campaigner Rodney Croome said. "LGBTI people have been through enough. To delay the process or to suggest we should now accept discriminatory legislation would be cruel and disrespectful."

Australia had about 46,800 same-sex couples in 2016, a 39% increase since 2011, government figures show. Sydney, the nation’s largest city, has hosted the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras since 1978, 19 years before the last Australian state decriminalised homosexuality.

Since becoming leader in September 2015, Turnbull has been unable to pursue the socially progressive agenda many voters expected of him, including tougher action on climate change, leading to claims he is beholden to conservatives within his own party.

While the prime minister appeared at a rally in support of the "yes" vote, he was criticised by the main opposition Labor party for holding the postal survey instead of pushing for parliament to resolve the issue with a free vote.

The postal survey result "strengthens his hand in dealing with the hardline conservatives within his own party", said Nick Economou, a political analyst at Monash University in Melbourne. "It might not shut them up, but it means they are being confronted with the reality that, despite their rhetoric, they actually speak for a small share of the Australian community."

Bloomberg

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