A discussion in parliament is due Tuesday, but with Labor rejecting the plebiscite, the next steps remain unclear. A conservative Liberal Party leader accused Labor of playing politics with the issue.
Australia's leading opposition party decided to block government plans for a non-binding plebiscite on gay marriage, arguing that it would be cheaper, faster and safer to simply vote on the issue in parliament.
The opposition Labor Party supports gay marriage, but party leader Bill Shorten argues that the plebiscite proposed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would unleash a divisive, and potentially violent, public debate. He said Parliament should decide the issue on its own.
"The Labor party will oppose Malcolm Turnbull's expensive, divisive plebiscite," opposition leader Bill Shorten said in Canberra after a meeting of the party's parliament caucus.
"The plebiscite could cause harm to gay and lesbian people. Having met and listened to many people, I could not in good conscience recommend that we support the plebiscite ... because of the harm it would cause to the people, and especially the children."
He added, "Labor wants to achieve marriage equality in the fastest, cheapest, least harmful way possible. That's why we want a free vote in the parliament."
But Attorney-General George Brandis, of the conservative Liberal Party, accused Labor of putting politics ahead of policy in an effort to score political points.
"Today is the opportunity for the Labor Party to show that it really does believe in marriage equality or whether it's just playing a political game here," Brandis told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. before Labor made its decision.
A vote in parliament
Turnbell proposed the bill for the plebiscite to be held in February. But for the public vote to go ahead he needs support from the more progressive opposition Labor Party because his government has a razor-thin - single vote - majority in parliament and lacks unanimity on the issue.
The bill on the plebiscite is due for discussion Tuesday afternoon in the parliament's lower house, but with the opposition opposing it, it would seem the bill is dead.
A plebiscite differs from a referendum in Australia in that it does not relate to constitutional matters. The country has held just three plebiscites in its history - the last one coming in 1977 when the country chose its national song.
Labor leader Shorten pledged to continue pushing for a marriage equality law, urging that the government allow parliament vote on the matter.
"The prime minister and I support marriage equality," Shorten told reporters. "A majority of the parliamentarians support it and I think most Australians also support the idea."
He added, "We could make marriage equality a reality today by having a free vote in parliament. There is more than one way to achieve marriage equality. Let's legislate and vote."
bik/kl (AP, dpa)