Gay couples may be allowed to marry before the next election, with MPs switching sides to back a bill sprung on Parliament.
Divided opinions emerged quickly yesterday on Labour MP Louisa Wall's "marriage equality" bill, which was plucked from a ballot of more than 60 members' bills and will be subject to a conscience vote as early as next month.
"This bill is based on the premise that everyone should have equal opportunity to recognise their relationship within the social and legal institution of marriage," Wall said.
"It will ensure that all New Zealanders have the right to marry, regardless of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity."
Wall won the immediate support of her leader, David Shearer, Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples and all 14 Green MPs.
Prime Minister John Key - who in 2004 voted against civil unions - had already followed the lead of US President Barack Obama and announced in May that he would vote for the first reading of a gay marriage bill.
Key is one of 20 MPs still in Parliament who voted against the civil union bill. Among them, Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia and UnitedFuture leader Peter Dunne also yesterday hinted at a shift in their views.
"I think that I have a better perspective [now] because in the end I acknowledge and believe that so long as children have the best parent that they can have . . . that that's the most important thing, rather than the sexuality," Turia said.
Mana Party leader Hone Harawira had, as recently as last month, stated he was against gay marriage but yesterday promised to vote for the first reading of Wall's bill on behalf of his party.
All National MPs will be pushed to vote for the bill by the party's youth wing, the Young Nats, who said young people "overwhelmingly support" marriage equality.
The National Party conference last weekend voted overwhelming in favour of a remit for gay adoption.
But several National MPs were yesterday reluctant to be pinned down to a position on gay marriage.
Deputy Prime Minister Bill English said the issue was "not that important" and he "thought the problem had been solved" with the introduction of civil unions in 2004.
"In the big picture, it's not that important," English said.
Fourth-ranked Cabinet minister Steven Joyce said he had "not given it a moment's thought" and that it was "not exactly the biggest issue of the day".
Only a handful of MPs were prepared to openly declare they were against the bill. National's Chester Borrows cited religious beliefs and NZ First MP Richard Prosser said he would vote against the bill, so as to "preserve the institution of marriage".
Act Party leader John Banks, noted as socially conservative, may face a struggle with his party over his vote and last night indicated he was yet to consider the bill.
Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, whose party failed to reach the 5% support threshold to enter Parliament at last year's election, will be eyeing debate over the bill as a platform to increase his party's support.
Last night he said it would be "an election issue" in 2014 and that the Conservatives were "the only party with a clear policy of supporting the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman".
Several countries, including the Netherlands, Sweden and Mexico, have mandated gay marriage.
Matrimony goal for civil union couple
The first homosexual couple recognised in a civil union in New Zealand say they will continue to feel marginalised until they can be legally married.
The introduction of civil unions for gay couples in 2005 was a step in the right direction, John Jolliff said, but the bill now before Parliament to redefine marriage would finally create equality between heterosexuals and homosexuals.
"It'll get rid of the second-class-citizen status," he said. "It will give [us] a different sense of being part of the community. When you're gay you don't feel part of the community because you're a minority.
"It's a logical step that we should be married in name, because we feel married. New Zealand on the whole is pretty supportive, but homophobia is still out there. Let's hope the MPs challenge that homophobia."
Jolliff, 83, and partner Des Smith, 72, look forward to marrying if the bill becomes law.
"We've jokingly said we'd have a big civil union divorce party - and then a big wedding party," Jolliff said.
For the author of the bill, Labour MP Louisa Wall, the bill carries personal significance, but its importance is more wide-reaching.
"This bill is an important step forward for New Zealand," she said. "Marriage is a fundamental human right and it is only fair that all New Zealanders have equal opportunity to recognise their relationship within the social and legal institution of marriage if they so choose. Fundamentally, it's about the dignity of every single human being."
Presbyterian minister the Rev Margaret Mayman, of St Andrew's on The Terrace, supported the bill.
"I think the law should change," she said. "Marriage should be an option for those people that want it."