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Tasmania's 'North Korea' more pink than red

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Hobart correspondent for Fairfax Media

View more articles from Andrew Darby

The time has come for gay marriage according to Tasmania Premier Lara Giddings.

The time has come for gay marriage according to Tasmania Premier Lara Giddings. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

For more than a century an oversized portrait of that conservative paragon Queen Victoria has loomed 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. It's the only house of parliament in Australia not controlled by parties or government, and the one that can still force a lower house to election without going itself.

In recent years its mainly independent members have often held out against environmental gains, and social change.

They repeatedly blocked gay law reform, were whipped into line by Gunns Limited to back its now-moribund pulp mill project, and this year openly caucused against the landscape-changing 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 a gay marriage first mover ever gets tested in the High Court, it needs to get 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. Ms Forrest, a tangle-haired 50-year-old former midwife, 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.

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."

The MLCs' usual economic development driving force is at stake only in the sense that gay marriage advocates claim it will be a financial boost as couples come to Tasmania to marry.

"What I've found is that the upper house has an open-ness towards talking about the issue," Mr Croome said.

"But the Tasmanian upper house is quite unpredictable, and it is foolish to say it will pass or fail."

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