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Australian government lawmaker breaks ranks to introduce gay marriage bill to Parliament

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CANBERRA, Australia — A maverick lawmaker broke from conservative government ranks on Monday to introduce legislation that would legalize gay marriage in Australia as a new opinion poll confirmed that most Australians support such a reform.

Warren Entsch, a 65-year-old former crocodile farmer who has been dubbed a progressive redneck in the media, introduced a private member's bill that would allow same-sex marriage throughout Australia.

Entsch has conceded that his bill has little chance of reaching a vote because the ruling coalition decided last week that government lawmakers should be bound by the party line opposing gay marriage.

"I certainly wouldn't have been introducing it if I didn't hope that I could have a vote on it," Entsch told reporters.

Several lawmakers in Prime Minister Tony Abbott's Liberal Party have said they would defy the government's wishes by voting for gay marriage if such a vote is allowed.

The push for gay marriage within government ranks is a leadership test for Abbott, a former Roman Catholic seminarian who has been described as Australia's most socially conservative prime minister in decades.

A poll by Sydney-based market researcher Ipsos published by Fairfax Media newspapers on Monday found that 69 percent of respondents supported legalizing same-sex marriage and 25 percent opposed it. Support had grown by 12 percentage points since December 2011.

The poll was based on a weekend, nationwide telephone survey of 1,402 voters. It had a 2.6 percentage point margin of error.

The latest poll also provided more bad news for the government which has trailed the opposition in a range of opinion polls since April last year. It found 54 percent of respondents preferred the opposition center-left Labor Party while 46 percent preferred the ruling coalition.

While 15 percent of respondents supported Abbott compared to the leader of the Liberal Party, 41 percent preferred senior minister Malcolm Turnbull, a gay marriage advocate whom Abbott replaced as party leader in 2009.

Abbott has promised that if his government retains power at elections next year, he will allow the public to decide the gay marriage issue with a popular vote.

Turnbull said in his blog on Sunday that such a vote should be held before the election, which is due around September.

"It would be better if same-sex marriage were not a contentious issue at the next election," Turnbull wrote. "There are sincere, conscientious differences of opinion throughout the community and on both sides of the political divide and issues like this are better dealt with outside of the frenzied hurly burly of an election campaign."

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