The federal Coalition has split over the issue of civil unions for same-sex couples, with five Liberal backbenchers defying the prime minister to declare their support for the legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships.

The backbenchers’ move came a day after John Howard said he would not support a civil union scheme like the one introduced in the UK last month.

When asked by reporters on 22 December if he opposed civil partnerships for gays and lesbians in Australia, Howard said: I think marriage is for men and women. That’s why we amended the Marriage Act.

I would be opposed to a recognition of civil unions, although I am strongly in favour -¦ of removing any property and other discrimination that exists against people who have same-sex relationships he said, National Nine News reported.

This was Howard’s strongest statement in favour of gay and lesbian law reform in almost a decade of leadership.

Until now, the Australian government has only been willing to accept same-sex couples for terrorism laws, some areas of immigration and passport laws, and for some superannuation choice, Rod Swift, a spokesperson for gay rights group Australian Coalition for Equality (ACE), said.

Immediate reform is needed in areas like parenting and families, medical safety nets, taxation, superannuation contribution splitting, social security and veterans’ benefits.

Kelly Pilgrim-Byrne, also from ACE, said the government needed to follow up with a clear reform schedule.

No one from the prime minister’s office was available for comment.

The push for civil unions within the Liberal party was led by MPs Warren Entsch, Judi Moylan, Mal Washer, Peter Lindsay and Petro Georgiou on 23 December.

Washer, the MP for Moore in Western Australia, told Sydney Star Observer while he supported the 2004 gay marriage ban he strongly believed in giving same-sex couples some sort of acknowledgement or recognition under the law.

I’m not advocating marriage, that’s totally different, but civil unions that allow them certain rights like property rights and other rights that people in a marital situation would have, Washer said.

The politician -“ who called Howard not only a good leader but a good mate -“ said his office had received a few hundred emails on the topic of civil unions, and all but two of them had been supportive.

Lindsay, the Liberal MP for Herbert in Queensland and a self-avowed Christian, said the government should not be afraid to take on this particular injustice that exists in the community.

I know the churches have a powerful role in this, and my right-wing colleagues have a powerful role in all this, but that doesn’t make the current situation right, Lindsay told the Star.

I’m not afraid to speak out and say that if two people who love each other want to live together for the rest of their lives, no matter who they are, they should be able to have some sort of formal recognition of commitment.

Lindsay called on the Labor party -“ which [was] still being very coy on the issue -“ to support civil unions. Only Sydney MP Tanya Plibersek had publicly gotten behind them during the current debate.

The Australian reported the Labor caucus was divided over the issue.

A spokesperson for shadow attorney-general Nicola Roxon told the Star Labor currently has no position on any civil union proposal.

But we will look at the UK model closely and consider it, the spokesperson said.

While both Lindsay and Washer said they doubted there would be enough support for civil unions within the Coalition, both politicians predicted reforms were on the way.

At the end of the day I think we’ll gain something for same-sex couples out of this, Washer said.

There’s no way if we start coming up and beating this drum we’re going to go away without ensuring the best result currently possible for them or at least a good start towards a better life for them.

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