NEW Zealand MPs have voted overwhelmingly in favour of a gay marriage bill, making it almost certain to pass into law.
The result of the vote – which was carried by 80 to 40 – was greeted by cheering from a packed public gallery.
It is the first of three votes that the parliament must hold before the bill can become law, a process that usually takes several months and allows the public to make their opinions known.
Only a simple majority in the free vote was needed to ensure a second vote, and the margin is a strong indication that the bill will be passed.
Should New Zealand enact the law, it will become the 12th country since 2001 to recognise same-sex or equal marriage. Polls indicate two-thirds of New Zealanders support equal marriage as do most of the country’s political leaders.
New Zealand already has same-sex civil unions that confer many legal rights to gay couples, although activists argue they don’t give them equal social status. One important change under the proposed legislation, however, is that same-sex married couples could jointly adopt a child, something they can’t do under the existing laws.
The proposed changes can be directly traced to US president Barack Obama’s declaration in May in support of gay marriage. That prompted centre-right prime minister John Key to break his silence on the issue by saying he was “not personally opposed” to the idea. Then MP Louisa Wall, from the opposition Labour party, put forward a bill she had previously drafted.
“If I’m really honest, I think the catalyst was around Obama’s announcement, and then obviously our prime minister came out very early in support, as did the leader of my party, David Shearer,” Ms Wall said yesterday. “The timing was right.”
Ms Wall, 40, is openly gay. She represented New Zealand in both netball and rugby before turning to politics. She said she received thousands of e-mails both supporting and opposing her stance on gay marriage, including some hate mail.
This week, opponents of the bill presented a petition to MPs signed by 50,000 people. Bob McCoskrie, founder of the conservative lobby group Family First, which helped organise the petition, said civil unions go far enough in providing legal rights to same-sex couples and there was no need to redefine marriage.
“Equality doesn’t mean sameness,” he said. “Marriage has always been about the relationship of a man and a woman because of their natural potential to have children.”
Labour MP Su’a William Sio, who broke ranks with most of his colleagues, warning the measure could spark a backlash against his party, also spoke against the bill.
“It is a difficult issue and the views are very divided,” Mr Sio said. “By passing this legislation we not only change the definition of marriage, we change its meaning and the fundamental basis of marriage.
“This change will have enduring ramifications for future generations.”
Despite sponsoring the bill, Ms Wall said that if it passes, she has no plans to marry her partner of five years, lawyer Prue Tamatekapua. She said that for them, the civil union celebration they enjoyed two years ago was enough.
“I’m happy. Other people aren’t,” she said. “I’m not driven by self-interest, if I can say that. For me, this is fundamentally about living in a fair and just society.”