TASMANIA could become the first state to legalise gay marriage after the Premier, Lara Giddings, said the time had come to end discrimination against same-sex couples.
The legislation would be drafted to allow gay and lesbian couples from interstate to be married in Tasmania, something that Ms Giddings said would be an economic boon for the state.
She told the state Labor conference in Hobart yesterday that she would introduce the legislation by the end of the year.
''There will always be excuses, arguments and questions of timing when moving on difficult and controversial issues,'' Ms Giddings said.
''But just as we have responded to other forms of discrimination throughout history, there comes a time when no amount of excuses should stand in the way of doing what is right.''
The parliamentary Labor Party in Tasmania made the decision to have legislation drafted after obtaining advice from the Solicitor-General that said a state could introduce its own legislation. The states had the power to legislate on marriage until 1961 when the power became concurrent with that of the Commonwealth.
This means the states can legislate in areas not covered by the Commonwealth law, according to the legal advice of gay rights advocates.
In 2004, then prime minister John Howard amended the Marriage Act to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
This amendment would allow the states to argue that they have the power to legislate for same-sex marriage because it is not covered by Commonwealth law. A bill introducing gay marriage will be debated by Federal Parliament later this year but is widely expected to fail.
Ms Giddings said she was ''open'' to the idea of a conscience vote for Labor MPs. However, it is expected there would be enough support from Labor and Greens MPs for the bill to pass through the lower house.
A spokesman for the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group, Rodney Croome, said Tasmania was the logical state to take the lead because its Parliament was the first to enact a civil union scheme and the first to recognise overseas same-sex marriages. ''Ironically, the fact Tassie was the last state to decriminalise homosexuality in 1997 has led us directly to this point because the damage caused by prejudice and discrimination is still a recent and painful memory for many Tasmanians.''
The federal Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, said: ''The government remains committed to a conscience vote on gay marriage.''
The NSW Attorney-General's office did not return calls.