Australia's ruling party voted Saturday to endorse same-sex marriage, a reversal of its long-standing position that has little practical effect on the chance of gay marriage being legalized in the country.
The impact of the vote at the center-left Labor Party's annual conference was diluted by the party's endorsement of a motion by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to allow lawmakers to make a "conscience vote" on bills attempting to legalize gay marriage. That means legislators can vote on the issue according to their personal beliefs rather than being forced to vote in line with the party's official position.
Gillard's government holds a wafer-thin majority in Parliament over the conservative Liberal Party _ which opposes same-sex marriage _ and several Labor members personally oppose gay marriage. So any bill proposing to legalize gay marriage will still face a tough battle.
Recent polls show a majority of Australians favor allowing same-sex marriage, and several Australian states already permit civil unions between gay couples. But Gillard opposes any changes to Australia's Marriage Act, which prohibits same-sex marriage.
She called the party's support of the conscience vote "the right decision," but brushed off questions about its endorsement of the policy change.
"My focus was on the conscience vote and people should be able to vote in accordance with their conscience _ and certainly now they will," Gillard said.
Marriage equality advocates said they were disappointed with the conscience vote, but praised the policy change as historic.
"The momentum toward achieving marriage equality is unstoppable," Australian Marriage Equality national convener Alex Greenwich said. "A major obstacle to reform has been removed and we are prepared to face the new challenge we have been given of achieving reform with a Labor conscience vote."
The vote followed a fiery debate in which gay marriage advocates pleaded for equal treatment of all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, and opponents argued for the status quo.
"This issue is one we should decide with our heads, not on the basis of emotion," said Joe de Bruyn, national secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, one of the country's largest unions. "The definition of marriage as set out in the legislation is that it is the union of one man and one woman, voluntarily entered into for life. It has always been that way since the dawn of humanity."
In a passionate speech that brought much of the audience to its feet, Labor Sen. John Faulkner said it was the government's job to protect human rights.
"Human rights can never be at the mercy of individual opinions or individual prejudices. They are not privileges to be extended to one person and denied to another according to the whims of popular opinion or the whims of the government of the day," he said. "They are inherent in each and every one of us simply because we are human."