The celebrations escalated as the public gallery burst into song, belting out century-old Maori love tune Pokarekare Ana, before the applause broke out again, echoing around the chamber, with MPs hugging and kissing each other in congratulations.

They ran up a good four minutes before order was finally called, and New Zealand became the 13th country in the world – and the first in the Asia-Pacific region – to legalise gay marriage. 

“In our society, the meaning of marriage is universal – it’s a declaration of love and commitment to a special person,” sponsor of the bill MP Louisa Wall said as the parliamentary debate wound up. Nothing could make me more proud to be a New Zealander than passing this bill.”

Seventy-seven of 121 members voted in favour of amending the 1955 Marriage Act last Wednesday night. Since 2005, NZ has allowed civil unions, but the new law, which will come into force in August, will allow same-sex couples to jointly adopt children for the first time and will also allow their marriages to be recognised in other countries. 

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But the bill wasn’t without its opposition. Some 44 MPs voted against it, and 75,000 people have signed an anti-legislation petition. Addressing some of those who had opposed the bill in a YouTube video that’s gone viral, MP Maurice Williamson made a speech in Wellington’s parliament which had MPs in fits of giggles. 

He said: “I’ve had a reverend in my local electorate say, ‘The gay onslaught will start the day this law is passed’.“Well, we are struggling to know what the gay onslaught will look like. We don’t know whether it will come down the Pakuranga Highway as a series of troops or whether it will be a gas that flows in over the electorate that blocks us all in.”

He added: “All we are doing with this bill is allowing two people who love each other to have that love recognised by way of marriage. We are not declaring nuclear war on a foreign state; we are not bringing a virus in that could wipe out our agriculture sector forever.”

Politicians weren’t the only ones celebrating, as the jubilant mood carried through the streets of Wellington. “This is really, really huge,” said Jills Angus Burney, a lawyer who drove about 90 minutes to parliament to watch the vote with her partner, Deborah Hambly.

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MP Louisa Wall

“It’s really important to me. It’s just unbelievable.”Kiwi bank teller Tania Penafiel Bermudez said that although she already considers herself married to partner Sonja Fry, the new law means “we can now feel equal to everyone else” with a certificate to prove their commitment.

“This means we can feel safe and fair and right in calling each other wife and wife,” she added.Crucially, despite the fact it was mooted by the Labour party, the bill was supported by the country’s centre-right prime minister John Key, as well as Opposition leader David Shearer. And members were told to vote by their conscience rather than along party lines.

“In my view, marriage is a very personal thing between two individuals,” Key said. “And, in the end, this is part of equality in modern-day New Zealand.”

However, despite the historic step taken by its trans-Tasman neighbour, it seems Australia isn’t ready to follow suit. Opposition leader Tony Abbott said his “traditional” views are pretty well known, while prime minister Julia Gillard also supports the view that under commonwealth law, marriage is defined as between a man and a woman.

Federal parliament’s debate to change the Marriage Act was voted down 98-42 last September, despite heavy support from gay groups and some MPs.

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But while Gillard had allowed Labor MPs a conscience vote on the issue, Abbott’s coalition was required to follow the party line not to support amendments. Following NZ’s vote, Gillard said a conscience vote was “the right thing to do”, adding: “It is absolutely impossible to see change ever succeeding unless every parliamentarian gets a conscience vote.”

However, polls indicate Gillard and Abbott might be getting it wrong. A study last year found 60 per cent of 786 Australians back gay marriage – an increase on an earlier survey where just 27 per cent of 1204 people thought it was an important issue.

For Australian Christian Lobby spokesman Lyle Shelton, the issue is a “vote changer”. He said: “It’s just not an issue that relates to the Australian electorate. For many Christian people, and people who are concerned about the natural family, this would be a vote changer.”

However, Independent Sydney MP and gay rights activist Alex Greenwich called the campaign “unstoppable”. He said the vote gave “a lot of hope and a lot of encouragement to campaigns in Australia”.

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He added: “The growing international pressure that was just taken up a notch with New Zealand embracing this important reform is sending a message that marriage equality is unstoppable. If New Zealand can do it, Australia can as well.”

Many Australian gay couples now plan to travel to New Zealand to get married, and Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young will be introducing a private member’s bill allowing recognition of same-sex marriages conducted overseas.

But with a packed agenda before parliament rises in June before the September 14 federal election, there may not be time to put her bill to a vote.

So, as Kiwis celebrate equality in modern-day New Zealand, ex-Greens leader Bob Brown fears Australia is getting left behind because of Gillard and Abbott’s views. “Their thinking is last-century, and they’re making Australia last-century,” he said.

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Photos: Getty; AAP