Australia's opposition Labor Party has introduced a bill to legalize same-sex marriage as pressure builds on the government to change current law. The Labor leader called for a free parliamentary vote on the issue.
Introducing the bill on Monday, Labor Party leader Bill Shorten told the House of Representatives that he had been motivated by a recent Irish referendum showing overwhelming public support for legalizing marriage between two people of the same gender.
"How can Ireland, New Zealand, 37 US states, England , Scotland, South Africa, Canada, Brazil, Iceland and Uruguay, how can they all be ahead of us?" Shorten asked.
"Twenty countries have already recognized the merit of marriage equality. I am confident Australia will," he added, and called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to allow a free vote within his Liberal Party-led coalition.
The legislation would replace the current definition of marriage as the union of "man and woman" with the words "two people."
Shorten urged lawmakers to "change a law that no longer describes modern Australia" and to "embrace a definition of marriage that respects, values and includes every Australian."
"It's time," he said.
Labor does not have the numbers to pass the bill, and debate on it was adjourned indefinitely by the nearly empty parliament in Canberra, broadcaster ABC reported.
The bill represents an about-face for the party, which in 2004 backed an amendment to the Marriage Act that made it clear that only a man and a woman could marry. A draft law on legalizing same-sex marriage proposed by a junior Labor lawmaker in 2012 while Labor was in power was rejected by the lower house by a vote of 98-42.
A law passed in the Australian Capital Territory in 2013 allowing same-sex marriage was struck down soon afterwards in the High Court, meaning that 31 marriages carried out in the brief period that it was in force were made void.
'Not a main priority'
Prime Minister Abbott, who does not support same-sex marriage, said on Monday that other issues were of more importance at present.
"I accept that same-sex marriage is a significant issue. It's an important issue," Abbott told reporters.
"But frankly, this government's absolute fundamental priority in the budget session of Parliament is to get the most urgent budget measures through," he said.
New law 'inevitable'
Abbott's sister, Christine Forster, a Sydney town councillor who is in a relationship with a woman, is among those pushing for gay marriage to be made legal in Australia.
She has said her brother was likely to stick to his own personal view on the issue, but that he accepted that change was inevitable.
Opinion polls show that most Australians support same-sex marriage. Hundreds took part in a marriage-equality rally in Sydney on Sunday.
In the recent referendum in Ireland - a traditionally Catholic country that only decriminalized homosexuality two decades ago - 62 percent of voters called for the constitution to be changed to allow two people of the same sex to be married.
The Irish parliament has yet to pass legislation allowing such marriages to take place.
tj/msh (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)