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Gay marriage laws at mercy of independents

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Hobart correspondent for Fairfax Media

View more articles from Andrew Darby

It is difficult to predict how Tasmania's mercurial upper house will vote.

Queen Victoria looms large.

Queen Victoria looms large.

FOR more than a century an oversized portrait of that conservative paragon, Queen Victoria, has leaned imperiously over members of Tasmania's upper house, the Legislative Council.

This is the chamber originally formed of the privileged in the early 19th century to curb a tendency towards democracy. Traditionally Tasmanian voters have elected independent candidates to the house - as is the case now, with 13 of the 15 members being independents. It can still force a lower house to election without going itself.

In recent years the members have often held out against environmental gains, and social change. They repeatedly blocked gay law reform, backed the now-moribund Gunns pulp mill, and this year openly caucused against the forests peace deal before they even had legislation to deal with.

Given the Legislative Council's reputation for hardline unpredictability, one local commentator recently likened it to the North Korea of the state's bicameral Parliament.

Before the Tasmanian government's bid to be gay marriage's first mover ever gets tested in the High Court, it needs to get into law past the Legislative Council. So how likely is this chamber to vote for marriage equality? We may be surprised. Early evidence of which way the wind is blowing has come from Ruth Forrest, a 50-year-old former midwife, who represents a north-west Tasmanian electorate that still holds strongly to religious and traditional views.

She stood unopposed in this rural and remote seat for a second term in 2011. This kind of elector acceptance translates into gravitas among her 14 MLC colleagues, and at the moment, she has bucketloads of it.

''I support marriage equality,'' she said unequivocally on local ABC radio. ''We've got to a point in Tasmania where we treat other people equally regardless of their sexuality. And this is another step, if you like, in that process.''

A handful of other MLCs have come out on each side of the debate, but most still hold their cards close as the state government prepares to legislate.

Australian Marriage Equality campaign director Rodney Croome has watched the Legislative Council for most of his 30-year career campaigning for gay rights.

Mr Croome believes the upper house could be even more progressive than the state's House of Assembly.

''The Legislative Council had no problem recognising overseas same-sex marriages,'' he said.

''When it passed legislation to recognise same-sex parents in 2009, it was made retrospective, which meant it was more powerful. The Legislative Council actually improved it.

''What I've found is that the upper house has an openness towards talking about the issue. But the Tasmanian upper house is quite unpredictable, and it is foolish to say it will pass or fail.''

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