Celebrations swept across Australia Wednesday as voters emphatically endorsed same-sex marriage after more than a decade of divisive debate, and political leaders immediately began moves to enshrine the historic shift in law by Christmas.
Thousands of marriage equality supporters took to parks and squares across the vast country, hugging, dancing and singing under clouds of glitter when the results of the two-month-long postal survey were announced.
Revellers wrapped in rainbow colours swarmed the entertainment districts of Sydney, Melbourne and other cities, closing streets as the party continued late into the evening.
“This means everything, this means everything,” shouted one partygoer named Chris at a huge rally in Sydney, fighting back tears and hugging his partner Victor.
“It has been fantastic. I have been with my partner for 35 years and he was so joyed up that he burst into tears,” added another reveller, Gerry Boller.
Almost 62 percent of the 12.7 million people who participated voted “yes” to the question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”
Just 38.4 percent voted “no”, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which carried out the poll.
Irish-born Qantas Airlines chief Alan Joyce, who is openly gay and campaigned strongly for the “yes” campaign, also fought back tears as he spoke of his delight.
“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.
Nearly 80 percent of eligible voters took part in the poll, with the “yes” vote winning a majority in all of Australia’s states and territories.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a moderate conservative who backed the “yes” camp, hailed the result of the non-binding vote and vowed to pass a bill legalising marriage equality “before Christmas”.
Australians “voted yes for fairness, yes for commitment, yes for love”, Turnbull said, adding that he had already been invited to “stacks” of gay weddings once the law takes hold.
“Now it is up to us, here in the Parliament of Australia… to get on with the job the Australian people have tasked us to do and get this done, this year, before Christmas.”
Within hours of the vote result, Dean Smith, a Senator from Turnbull’s Liberal Party who is gay, introduced a bill that would legalise gay marriage while allowing religious institutions and clergy to refuse to celebrate same-sex unions if they conflict with their beliefs.
Hardline opponents in Turnbull’s party have pressed for more extensive religious protections to allow commercial service providers to reject same-sex weddings and let parents pull their children from school programmes they feel undermine heterosexual traditions.
They have support notably from Muslim and some conservative Christian communities which returned a high percentage of “no” votes in the survey.
But Turnbull rejected those calls this week and he and the opposition Labor Party are expected to back a bill based on Smith’s proposal with a “conscience vote” in the two houses of parliament.
“We will have a bill that will deliver on the instructions the Australian people have given us to change the law to allow same-sex couples to marry. That is our job. It is over to us now,” he said.
A survey of federal politicians by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published Tuesday found that 72 percent of House members and 69 percent of Senators would support the change to marriage laws.
Turnbull called the postal vote in the face of opposition from hardliners who refused to back a national plebiscite on the issue.
The move was opposed by proponents of same-sex marriage, who wanted direct legislative action.
They said the lengthy vote process was both a waste of money –- it cost just under Aus$100 million (US$76 million) -– and exposed gay people and their families to hate speech.
“No” campaigners said they would continue defending their cause.
“In a democracy, just because you win it doesn’t mean you… bulldoze forward,” said Senator 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?”
But the solid margin for the “yes” vote and the high turnout looks to limit the influence of “no” campaigners.