Same-sex marriage Bill introduced to Australian parliament

Activists march in the street during a rally in support of Same-Sex Marriage in Sydney, Australia, on Aug 9, 2015.
Activists march in the street during a rally in support of Same-Sex Marriage in Sydney, Australia, on Aug 9, 2015.PHOTO: EPA

SYDNEY (AFP) - A Bill to legalise same-sex marriage was introduced into the Australian parliament on Monday (Aug 17) but it is doomed to fail with Prime Minister Tony Abbott's government opposed to any changes.

Mr Warren Entsch, from Abbott's Liberal Party, tabled the cross-party private members bill - despite a government meeting last week deciding against allowing MPs a free vote on the issue, effectively ending any hopes of legislation passing.

"This Bill is designed to promote an inclusive Australia, not a divided one," said Mr Entsch.

"A divided nation is what we will be if we continue to allow discrimination in relation to marriage on the basis of a person's sexuality."

Debate on the Bill was adjourned.

Australia is seen as lagging behind a growing number of countries on marriage reform and support for change is rising with a poll in Fairfax Media on Monday showing 69 per cent of 1,402 respondents in favour of equal rights, up from 57 per cent five years ago.

Mr Abbott, a conservative who once trained to be a Catholic priest, has long opposed change on the issue and a meeting of his Liberal/National coalition last week decided the government would remain against gay marriage during the current parliament.

The decision meant an end to hopes of a free vote, in which politicians vote according to their conscience rather than along party lines.

This could have seen the marriage reform Bill passed if government MPs who support gay marriage were allowed to side with opposition Labour and independent MPs to secure a majority.

In a concession, Mr Abbott suggested the issue could be put to a popular vote after the next election, expected some time next year.

But splits have emerged within his frontbench over whether that would be best served through a constitutional referendum or an opinion poll-style plebiscite.

The issue has come to a head with the ruling conservatives heading for election defeat, according to the Fairfax poll which showed that on a two-party basis Labour leads Mr Abbott's coalition 54 to 46.

"This is something that has been the way it currently is for thousands of years, hundreds of years, it's a very big decision to make a change like this," Mr Abbott said on Monday of marriage reform.

"I don't say that it's not a decision that the community won't embrace ultimately.

"But the decision that came very strongly out of our party room last week was that this should not be the politicians' decision, it should be the people's decision and that's what will happen in the next term of parliament. It should be a people's choice."

Same-sex couples can have civil unions or register their relationships in most states across Australia, but the government does not consider them married under national law.

Labour leader Bill Shorten has pledged to legalise gay marriage if he wins the next election.