Australian communications minister Malcolm Turnbull on Friday said he believed there was “a reasonable prospect” of the country changing its laws to allow same-sex couples to marry.
His comments follow the nation’s top court on Thursday striking down a landmark gay marriage law in the nation’s capital, ruling that only the national parliament, not state and territory authorities, has the power to decide who could wed.
The conservative government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott is opposed to gay marriage and the party has previously refused to allow a conscience vote among its members, in contrast to the Labor opposition.
But Turnbull said he was confident this would change.
“I think it is very likely there will be a conscience vote agreed to by the coalition party room,” he told broadcaster ABC.
He added that a private members bill was expected to be introduced to parliament proposing a change to the existing law, which allows marriage only between a man and a woman.
“As to whether that would result in the bill being passed, it’s probably a bit early to say because the new parliament, there’s a lot of new members,” he said, with the government only being elected in September.
“But I think there is a reasonable prospect of a change to the law in this parliament.”
Gay marriage was explicitly outlawed under a 2004 revision of the national Marriage Act by the conservative prime minister at the time, John Howard.
Same-sex couples can have civil unions or register their relationships in most states across Australia, but the government does not consider them married under national law.
For legal purposes they are considered de facto couples and have exactly the same rights as married couples. Campaigners, however, insist that the right to marry is a more fundamental human right.
Since the Act was revised, the issue has gained increasing national traction with polling commissioned by marriage equality campaigners putting support for same-sex marriage in Australia at 64 percent.
Despite this, Australia continues to lag behind a growing number of countries on the reform including neighbouring New Zealand, Britain and 16 US states.
Turnbull acknowledged that jurisdictions across the world were making changes to marriage legislation.
“I just note that if you look around the world you know the big English speaking countries we feel ourselves culturally close to, all of them now recognise same-sex marriage,” he said.
The Labor opposition has called on Abbott, whose sister is a lesbian who hopes to marry her partner, to allow a conscience vote, where lawmakers would be free to cast their vote on personal rather than party lines.
A previous ballot in September 2012 failed by 98 votes to 42, after Abbott imposed the party line on his MPs. AFP