CANBERRA, Australia — The Australian government has all but doomed legislation that would allow gay marriage by refusing to allow its lawmakers a free vote on the divisive issue.
Lawmakers in the ruling conservative coalition voted at a meeting late Tuesday night to compel members of the government to follow the party line that marriage should be lawful only between a man and a woman. The vote at the end of a passionate, six-hour debate was 66 to 33.
Government lawmaker Warren Entsch plans to introduce a bill to Parliament on Monday that would allow same-sex marriage throughout Australia. But Enstch and other marriage equality advocates concede that that bill will now fail because government lawmakers will not be free to follow their consciences.
The outcome is a victory for Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a former Roman Catholic seminarian who has been described as Australia’s most socially conservative prime minister in decades. However, a vote on the legislation could damage his leadership if government lawmakers broke ranks to support gay marriage.
Abbott declined to say whether he would now allow the legislation to be voted on. Lawmakers in the opposition center-left Labor Party will be able to decide for themselves how they vote on same-sex marriage.
Abbott extended an olive branch to marriage equality advocates, offering to allow the public to vote on gay marriage in a plebiscite if his government retains power at elections due late next year.
“Obviously the fact that we are disposed to put it to the people in the next term of Parliament shows that we are open to change, but please let’s not underestimate the magnitude of this as a cultural shift,” Abbott told reporters on Wednesday.
Marriage equality advocates argue that Parliament is out of step with the Australian community, with opinions polls showing majority support for same-sex marriage.
Some television networks have refused to carry anti-gay marriage advertising for fear of a viewer backlash. Lawmakers returned to the national capital this week after a six-week break to see Canberra Airport illuminated with rainbow colors. The Snow family, who own and operate the airport, have joined hundreds of Australian businesses in demonstrating their support for marriage equality.
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