SYDNEY - Gay couples will be able to legally marry in Australia after a same-sex marriage bill sailed through Parliament on Thursday, ending decades of political wrangling.
There were loud cheers, hugs and sustained clapping in the 150-seat lower House of Representatives when all but four MPs voted in support of marriage equality, after the upper house Senate passed the bill 43-12 last week.
“What a day for love, for equality, for respect! Australia has done it,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told the House.
“Every Australian had their say and they said it is fair, get on with it!”
The historic reforms will commence on Saturday, when same-sex couples can a lodge a notice to marry. They will then have to wait a month before tying the knot.
Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten hailed the passing of the bill as a uniting moment for Australia, adding: “Now is the time for healing.
“A time to build, a time to love, and is now at last a time for marriage equality,” he said.
Same-sex marriage campaigners converged outside Parliament in the nation’s capital Canberra to celebrate the historic occasion, which sees Australia join more than 20 other countries in recognizing such unions.
“We came, we saw, and love finally conquered,” co-chair of the Equality Campaign Alex Greenwich told reporters.
“We thank all Australians for their support for saying yes, we thank all those who have campaigned for many years, for over 10 years, for fairness and equality.”
The bill was introduced in Parliament by the conservative government after Australians last month endorsed the reforms in a controversial voluntary postal vote.
Nearly 80 percent of eligible voters took part in the poll, and almost 62 percent of the 12.7 million people who participated chose “yes” on their ballots.
The vote had been called by Turnbull, a moderate who backed gay marriage, in the face of opposition from hardliners who refused to back a national plebiscite on the issue.
It was opposed by proponents of same-sex marriage, who wanted direct legislative action and argued a poll would expose gay people and their families to hate speech.
Just under 5 million people voted “no,” with conservative politicians using their rejection as a catalyst to push for religious exemptions to be included in the bill.
But after lengthy debate, both houses of Parliament knocked back any religious freedom amendments.
Leading “no” campaigner Lyle Shelton said it was “deeply disappointing” day.
“The Australian people were promised that their freedom of speech, freedom of religion and parental rights would be protected in any same-sex marriage legislation, and this has not happened,” he said.
The House vote took place on the last sitting day of Parliament for the year, with more than 100 MPs speaking on the bill this week. Queues of people lined up to watch the debate from the public gallery, with some dancing and cheering.
In moving scenes, the entire Parliament burst into song after the bill passed, belting out the lyrics to the “I Am Australian” song: “We are one, but we are many; And from all the lands on earth we come; We’ll share a dream and sing with one voice; ‘I am, you are, we are Australian.'”
Several parliamentarians who supported the changes wore rainbow-colored socks or ties, including Warren Entsch, described in local media as a “fiercely heterosexual … crocodile-farming, bull-catching Liberal.”
MPs have paid tribute to Entsch over the pass few weeks for his efforts, with the veteran Liberal MP speaking passionately about his “very lonely” journey in support of equal rights on the conservative side of politics.
“This bill will take from no-one; it simply makes our nation a kinder and a fairer place,” Entsch told Parliament this week.
One highly anticipated wedding will be the Liberal Party’s Tim Wilson, who proposed to his partner Ryan Bolger while speaking on gay marriage on the floor of the House earlier this week.
Same-sex marriage is now recognized in more than 20 countries, of which 16 are in Europe. It was most recently authorized on Tuesday by Austria’s top court by 2019 at the latest.