TASMANIA may become the first Australian state to legalise gay marriage - possibly even as early as this year - after Premier Lara Giddings yesterday vowed her government would pursue the reform.
In a development that could shift the debate beyond the anticipated defeat of proposed federal gay marriage laws in coming months, the Tasmanian legislation would also allow couples from outside the state to marry there - in a bid to boost the local economy.
The move appeared to catch the federal government and other states by surprise, with Victoria refusing to say if it would recognise same-sex marriages from Tasmania - and restating its view that marriage laws were a federal matter.
But constitutional law expert Professor George Williams last night republished advice he wrote, arguing that marriage falls under the ''concurrent'' or shared powers of Section 51 of the constitution - leaving the way open for states to legislate on gay marriage.
''The only limitation is that, where federal and state laws conflict, the Commonwealth law takes precedence. My view is that a state same-sex marriage law would not be inconsistent with the federal Marriage Act after it was narrowed in 2004 to make sure it dealt only with heterosexual marriage. However, this could only be determined by the High Court,'' he wrote.
Ms Giddings said she had obtained legal advice from the solicitor-general that there was no obstacle to stop legislation.
''Labor has a proud history of tackling discrimination and introducing important social reform,'' she said. ''I expect the rest of the country will be watching closely as we work through this process.''
Tasmanian Labor senator Helen Polley declared it ''a bridge too far'' while gay rights campaigner Rodney Croome was overjoyed that the last Australian state to decriminalise homosexuality might become the first to allow gay marriage.
''The message that Lara Giddings has sent the rest of the world today is that Tasmania has a heart, a heart that beats with courage and a heart that beats with love,'' he said.
The Tasmanian bill looks to have clear passage in the lower house with Labor and Greens support, but the picture is less clear in the upper house, where 13 of the 15 MPs are independents.
A federal private member's bill on gay marriage is widely expected to fail in the Parliament when put to a vote later this year. Federal Labor changed its platform last December to support gay marriage, but Labor MPs who oppose it - including Prime Minister Julia Gillard - have been granted a conscience vote. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has said the Coalition will vote against the legislation, with no conscience vote.
With the federal bill expected to fail, Ms Giddings yesterday said ''the time has come to act decisively on this issue''.
She said 11 countries - Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and Sweden - recognise same-sex marriage, as did states in Mexico and the US.
''There will always be excuses, arguments and questions of timing when moving on difficult and controversial issues,'' she 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.''
Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon refused to comment directly on the plan, while the Victorian government said it ''remains of the view that issues concerning marriage are a matter for the Commonwealth''. Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu supports civil unions, but not gay marriage.
Australian Christian Lobby chief Jim Wallace said legal opinion was contested, and he couldn't imagine the High Court would allow states to prevail on gay marriage.