The rejection is a blow to PM Turnbull, who has seen his popularity wane amid frustration that he has failed to live up to his progressive reputation. Photograph: (Getty)
Opposition lawmakers claim the bill to put same-sex marriage to a national vote may harm those in same-sex relationships
Despite strong popular support for marriage equality, Australia's opposition Labor party on Tuesday blocked the plan to hold a national vote on the same-sex marriage bill.
The party ruled out support to hold the national plebiscite in February on same-sex marriages, saying not only was it expensive and divisive, but it could be harmful to those in same-sex relationships and their families by exposing them to questions over the "integrity" of their unions.
"Why should gay Australians be subjected to a different law-making process than any other Australians?" said Labor leader Bill Shorten.
"Why should a couple in a committed relationship have to knock on the doors of 15 million of their fellow Australians and see if they agree with it? The easiest way is the way which this parliament has done for a hundred years: legislate."
The rejection by the centre-left Labor party to vote on whether to legalise same-sex unions could be a potential blow to conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's already waning popularity.
Turnbull's centre-right coalition government had introduced the bill in Parliament last month. But it required the support of the opposition, as the coalition enjoys only a single-vote majority in the lower house. He has insisted that if the vote was carried, parliament would ensure that gay marriage was legislated, even though the plebiscite would not be binding on parliament.
Debate on gay marriage in Australia has gone on for more than a decade and this move could likely delay it for at least three more years. Turnbull has said that, should the legislation proposing a national vote be rejected, the issue of same-sex marriage would not be reintroduced into parliament until after the next election, which is due in or before November 2019.
Same-sex marriage is supported by 61 per cent of Australians, a Gallop poll in August found, and Turnbull's inability to deliver the legislation could further damage his support.
"If things don't turn around by this time next year, and Turnbull's poll numbers haven't improved, he will find himself under pressure from within his own party," said Haydon Manning, an associate professor in political science at Flinders University in Adelaide.
On a two-party preferred basis, where votes for minor parties are redistributed to the two main blocs, the government trails Labor by a margin of 52-48, a Newspoll by The Australian newspaper on Monday showed. Dissatisfaction with Turnbull's government is at an all-time high of 56 per cent.
(WION with inputs from agencies)