CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's political opposition hopes to harness momentum from the Irish gay marriage referendum after it proposed a law Monday that would recognize same-sex marriages, which the country's conservative prime minister opposes.
Center-left Labor Party leader Bill Shorten became the first leader of a major Australian political party to back a bill to overturn a national ban on gay marriage.
Gay rights advocates fear that government lawmakers will be reluctant to support the bill as such a law would be seen as a political victory for Shorten over Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a former Roman Catholic seminarian and a staunch opponent of marriage equality.
Shorten told Parliament the law would not compel religious clerics to officiate at same-sex marriages. He called on Abbott to allow lawmakers in his ruling Liberal Party a free vote, rather than require them to back the party's line in opposing marriage equality.
"Our laws should be a mirror reflecting our great and generous country and our free, inclusive society," Shorten said on introducing the bill.
Shorten's deputy Tanya Plebersek seconded the bill, after no government lawmaker took up the offer to perform that official function as a gesture of bipartisanship support.
Abbott said his government was focused on Australia's economic and national security rather than marriage law reform.
"Let's see where the community debate goes. ... There's a range of views on both sides of the issue," Abbott told reporters shortly before Shorten introduced his legislation.
There is no timetable set for a vote, but Labor hopes it will happen this year.
Labor Senate leader Penny Wong, who is in a lesbian relationship, said that the recent referendum in which 62 percent of Irish voters called for their constitution to be changed to allow same-sex marriage was an important trigger for a similar debate in Australia.
Opinion polls show that most Australians support gay marriage. Gay rights advocates say Australia is now the only English-speaking developed country to ban same-sex marriage after the Irish vote.
In 2004, the Parliament changed the Marriage Act with the unanimous support of the ruling conservative coalition and Labor to make it clear that only a man and a woman could marry.
But Labor has since changed its stance.
A draft law to allow same-sex marriage proposed by a junior Labor lawmaker in 2012 while Labor was in government was soundly rejected by the House of Representatives, 98 votes to 42.
Abbott was then opposition leader and the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard was gay marriage opponent.
Labor lawmakers were allowed to vote according to their consciences, while Liberal lawmakers were required to oppose marriage equality.
Abbott says the party has yet to decide whether his party's lawmakers would he allowed a free vote when the issue next comes up in Parliament.
Analysts say that since Abbott's authority was weakened by a leadership challenge from within his party in February, he may be unlikely to anger marriage equality advocates within government ranks by denying them a free vote.
Even with all lawmakers allowed a free vote, gay rights advocates say the result would be close.