Prime Minister Julia Gillard has formally backed a same-sex marriage conscience vote in what marriage equality advocates a labelling an attempt to “pre-empt the outcome of Labor’s National Conference”.

In an opinion piece in Melbourne’s The Age Gillard says the same-sex marriage debate “elicits strongly held personal views across society” and that, “given the personal nature of the issue and the deeply held beliefs, I believe that in future it is appropriate that a conscience vote flow to Labor parliamentarians.”

The move comes at the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government looks to follow Tasmania’s lead and endorse full marriage equality for same-sex couples.

Australian Marriage Equality national convenor Alex Greenwich said the Primie Minister is “at odds with the mainstream of the Party and public opinion” and “appears to be captive of the extreme right of the Labor Party led by union boss Joe De Bruyn”.

“A majority of Australians, and Labor members and voters, want the Prime Minister to lead the country towards equality, not support outcomes designed to scuttle progress.” Greenwich said.

Gillard sites the “meaning” and “standing” of marriage in Australian culture as her basis for opposition.

“Many will ask, what is my personal opinion and where do I stand in the debate? As I have said many times, I support maintaining the Marriage Act in its current form, and the government will not move legislation to change it. My position flows from my strong conviction that the institution of marriage has come to have a particular meaning and standing in our culture and nation and that should continue unchanged. The Labor Party platform currently reflects this view,” the Prime Minister writes.

“This is a debate I have not shirked from, and it is one the party will hold. What we must do when that debate is over is to respect each other’s point of view.”

Greenwich said these remarks will be viewed as hurtful and hypocritical to the many same-sex couples who want to marry.

“Same-sex couples and our families also want to celebrate the meaning of marriage, yet we are actively denied this by a Prime Minister who has chosen not to get married,” he said.

“The Labor Party has an historic opportunity to deliver marriage equality, and in doing so will prove they have returned to their core values of fairness and equality.

“Labor voted as a block in 2004 to help John Howard ban same-sex marriage. To win back the trust and confidence of the majority of Australians who now support reform, the Party must vote as a block to deliver equality.”

The Star Observer broke news of Gillard’s planned conscience vote announcement last month. A senior federal Labor Party source revealed the Prime Minister thought a conscience vote “would take the wind out of the sails of any decision made by the” ALP national conference in Sydney on December 3.

The source said Gillard knew she didn’t have the votes at conference to prevent marriage equality from being added to the ALP national platform, which would put her at odds with her own party on the issue.

The source was also concerned that having an issue like same-sex marriage decided by conscience vote would set a bad political precedent as conscience votes were usually reserved for life or death issues like abortion or therapeutic cloning, whereas marriage equality was an issue of policy.

A Herald/Nielson poll this morning shows two thirds of voters support legalising same-sex marriage, a 5 percentage point increase in support since the question was last asked a year ago.

The poll finds 31 percent oppose legalising same-sex marriage, a six-point drop on a year ago, when 37 percent were opposed. It also found 71 percent of Labor voters, 50 percent of Coalition voters and 86 percent of Greens voters are in support. Conversely, 22 percent of Labor voters, 44 percent of Coalition voters and 10 percent of Greens voters oppose legalising same-sex marriage.

Greenwich said the Prime Minister’s position would simply prolong a potentially divisive debate that many within her Party want resolved.

“The last thing Labor wants is for this to be an issue at the 2013 national conference, but that’s exactly what will happen if the Prime Minister gets her way,” he said.

“Those Australian families who are disadvantaged daily by this discrimination will keep on fighting for equality.

“By again refusing to support equality, the Prime Minister may have broken our hearts, but she has strengthened our resolve.”

Meanwhile, the ACT looks likely to become the second Australian state or territory to endorse marriage equality.

ACT Greens’ Justice spokesperson, Shane Rattenbury, will today table a motion in the Territory Assembly calling on the federal parliament to amend the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry.

“The ACT has led the country on the equal recognition of same-sex couples so it would be fitting for the ACT Assembly to endorse marriage equality,” Greenwich said.

“If the motion passes it will send a strong message to the rest of the nation that marriage equality is an important issue that the federal parliament must pass.”

In September the Tasmanian Parliament became the first in the nation to endorse marriage equality.

“We call on other state and territory parliaments to follow the lead of Tasmania and the ACT,” Greenwich said.

The ACT Legislative Assembly has previously supported ground-breaking civil union laws introduced by the territory’s governing Labor Party, which has also endorsed marriage equality.

The motion will be debated on Wednesday.

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