CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The Australian opposition on Tuesday decided to block government plans for a public but non-binding vote on recognizing gay marriage, arguing it would better if the issue was decided in Parliament.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's conservative coalition government needs center-left Labor Party's support to get enabling legislation through the Senate to hold a national vote on gay marriage on Feb. 11.
But a meeting of Labor lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously decided against supporting the plebiscite, opposition leader Bill Shorten said.
While Labor supports gay marriage, it argues the plebiscite would trigger a divisive public debate. Labor argues the Parliament should decide the issue without asking the public.
"This country does not have the right in a plebiscite to pass judgment on the marriages and relationships of some of our fellow Australians. It is not what Australia is about," Shorten told reporters.
Turnbull, a marriage equality advocate, said despite the Labor comments, the idea of a plebiscite was not dead. He said the enabling bill would be voted on in the Senate after it was passed this week by the House of Representatives where the government holds a majority.
"We urge the senators — all the members of the Senate, including the Labor Party — to support that bill and give the people their say," Turnbull told reporters.
The Australian Christian Lobby, which opposes marriage equality, said it was disappointed "that ordinary Australians are being shut out from having a say about the biggest social policy change in a generation."
The government late Monday released draft amendments to the federal marriage law that would be put to Parliament if a majority of Australians endorse gay marriage in the plebiscite. Opinion polls show most Australians support marriage equality.
Most gay rights advocates fear that an aggressive scare campaign could result in the plebiscite failing, putting same-sex marriage off the national agenda for decades. Some conservative lawmakers have said they will vote against gay marriage in Parliament even if a majority of Australians support it.
But some marriage equality advocates fear that Labor's decision has ended any chance of same-sex marriage law reform during Parliament's current three-year term.
Religious ministers and officials would be allowed to refuse to officiate at same-sex marriages and churches would be allowed to refuse to provide facilities, goods and services for gay weddings. Some government lawmakers argue the same legal protections should be extended to cake makers and wedding singers who object to same-sex marriage.
Labor as a well as gay rights advocates are concerned that the government proposes giving civil wedding officials the same legal right as religious clergy to refuse to marry same-sex couples.
Alex Greenwich, co-chair of the Australian Marriage Equality lobby group, welcomed Labor's rejection of the plebiscite.
"That is a move that indeed reflects the views of the gay and lesbian community who now want the debate about a plebiscite put behind us," Greenwich told reporters.