SYDNEY – Australians have voted decisively in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry, sparking celebrations Wednesday across the country. The change may become enshrined in law by Christmas.
Thousands of supporters of marriage equality took to the streets, dancing and singing, when the results were announced. Colorful confetti filled the sky at rallies across the country.
Almost 62 percent of the 12.7 million people who participated in the two-month nonbinding postal survey voted in favor of allowing gay marriage.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull vowed to move a bill in favor of equality by Christmas.
Australians “have spoken in their millions, and they have voted overwhelmingly yes for marriage equality,” Turnbull told reporters in Canberra. “They voted yes for fairness — ‘yes’ for commitment, ‘yes’ for love.”
Nearly 80 percent of eligible voters took part in the poll despite fears that many young people might not respond to the postal survey in the digital age.
“This means everything,” said one man who hopes to marry, Chris, at a huge rally in Sydney, fighting back tears and hugging his partner, Victor.
The “yes” vote was supported by majorities in every state and territory in the vast and varied nation, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which ran the survey. The “no” vote garnered 38.4 percent.
“Australians can have confidence these statistics reflect the view of the eligible population,” bureau chief Davis Kalisch said.
Parliament must now adopt legislation, with Turnbull confident that lawmakers will use their “conscience vote” — where they are not obliged to vote along party lines — to bring in change.
The result looks set to cap years of political wrangling about the issue. Australia lags behind its international peers in legalizing gay marriage.
Irish-born Qantas chief Alan Joyce, who is gay and campaigned strongly for the “yes” campaign, also fought back tears as he spoke of his joy. “I was so proud of Ireland in May 2015 when they became the first nation in the world to vote for marriage equality. … But today I am even more proud of Australia, the country of my selection,” he said in Sydney.
“No” campaigners congratulated their opponents but vowed to push for religious protections and exemptions.
“In a democracy, just because you win it doesn’t mean you … bulldoze forward,” said Sen. Eric Abetz, a prominent “no” campaigner. “Keep in mind there are 4.8 million of our fellow Australians that actually voted no. … Do we say they should no longer be heard? Or do we actually ask them questions as to how can their concerns be alleviated so we can move forward as a nation?”
The result is seen as a positive for Turnbull, a moderate who supports marriage equality.
But he must now battle hard-liners within his party who want laws that let businesses reject same-sex weddings and let parents pull their children from school programs they feel undermine heterosexual traditions.
Turnbull and the opposition Labor Party have backed a simpler draft bill that legalizes gay marriage while allowing religious institutions to refuse to wed same-sex couples if they oppose the practice.
That bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate as early as Thursday.
A survey of federal politicians by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. published Tuesday found that 72 percent of the lower House of Representatives would support changes to marriage laws and in the Senate 69 percent would approve the changes.
Wednesday’s result was a historic accomplishment for proponents of marriage. But the poll also highlighted deep divisions in Australian society over the issue. “Yes” campaigners complained that gay people and their families were subjected to hate speech. “No” supporters argued that they were being accused of being bigots.
Even before the ballot papers were sent out in September the debate turned toxic, with a poster emblazoned “stop the fags” put up in central Melbourne and flyers describing homosexuality as “a curse of death” distributed in suburban Sydney.
The divisive debate split religious groups, businesses and even families.
Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott campaigned hard against same-sex marriage but saw his views opposed by his politician sister, Christine Forster, who is gay.
But in the sporting-mad nation, the poll has also seen some sports stars step up to publicly back same-sex marriages in an arena where homophobia and discrimination is still seen as widespread and where few players have come out as gay.