Australia's ruling Liberal party voted last night to hold a national vote on legalising same-sex marriage following an urgent meeting over a divisive issue that threatens to undermine the leadership of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Rejecting a push by progressives to hold a free parliamentary vote of MPs - which would be likely to change the marriage laws - the Liberal party voted to stick with its existing policy of holding a national compulsory plebiscite. The Federal Government said an alternative option would be to hold a voluntary postal plebiscite by the end of the year. But the plebiscite proposal is more likely to delay the issue.
A Bill to hold the compulsory plebiscite could be put to Parliament within a week but is unlikely to gain support in the Senate, or Upper House, where the ruling Liberal-National Coalition does not have a majority. A previous plebiscite Bill was rejected last November by the Senate, where Labor, the Greens and some other minor party MPs prefer an immediate free vote.
Most Liberal MPs have called for the issue to be resolved swiftly to try to end a debate that has exposed the party's bitter internal divisions.
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"If the Senate shows goodwill and respect to what the people voted for at the last election, then this can be solved very quickly," Liberal MP Craig Kelly, an opponent of same-sex marriage, told ABC News last night.
Opinion surveys show strong support for legalising same-sex marriage in Australia. An Essential poll last month found 63 per cent of Australians want to legalise it and 25 per cent were opposed, with the remainder undecided. Surveys have also found strong support for holding a plebiscite, rather than allowing MPs a free vote.
But same-sex marriage advocates say a plebiscite could lead to an ugly, divisive and unnecessary debate.
The leader of the Labor opposition party, Mr Bill Shorten, who supports same-sex marriage, said that holding a plebiscite was "ridiculous". He said Parliament could hold a free vote and change the law "in five minutes", promising to hold a vote within 100 days if elected.
"I am disappointed for hundreds of thousands of Australians that their Prime Minister has once again let them down," he said last night.
A prominent senator, Mr Nick Xenophon, who leads his own party, also urged a swift free vote, saying the stalemate had been an "international embarrassment".
The issue has divided the ruling coalition and loomed as a continuing threat to Mr Turnbull, a progressive who has struggled to control the conservative wing of his Liberal party. He supports same-sex marriage but has backed a plebiscite - a position widely seen as an attempt to placate the conservatives. This seemingly inconsistent stance appears to have done little to assist his poor performance in opinion polls.
A Newspoll survey published in The Australian yesterday found that the ruling coalition trailed Labor by 47 to 53 per cent. It found just 38 per cent of Australians were satisfied with Mr Turnbull's performance and 50 per cent were dissatisfied, with 12 per cent uncommitted. But he still has a strong lead over Mr Shorten as preferred prime minister, with 46 per cent supporting him and 31 per cent backing the opposition leader, with the remainder uncommitted.
Analysts said the Liberals' special two-hour party meeting on the issue last night was unlikely to help Mr Turnbull's standing in the polls.