SYDNEY - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Wednesday his government would remain opposed to gay marriage during the current parliament, but suggested the issue could be put to a popular vote after the next election.
Despite growing public support for same-sex marriage, with a poll last year finding those in favour of equal rights had reached a record high of 72 percent, Australia has not yet legalised marriage equality.
Abbott, a conservative who once trained to be a Catholic priest, called a late night press conference on Tuesday to reveal that a six-hour meeting of his Liberal/National coalition had come out against allowing MPs a free vote on gay marriage.
"We will maintain our existing position for the life of this parliament," the prime minister told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He said he was keeping faith with the electorate.
"But our disposition, going into the next election, should we win the next election, will be to put it to the people in the next term of parliament." A free vote, in which politicians voted according to their conscience, could have seen the reform passed if government politicians in favour of gay marriage had been allowed to side with opposition Labor and independent MPs to secure a majority.
Abbott said that same-sex marriage was something that had "only very recently come into our intellectual and cultural parameters, given that it's really only this generation that has ever thought of this".
"And frankly, prior to that, it would never have occurred to anyone in our culture and civilisation that marriage was not between a man and a woman," he said.
"I can remember my own university debates with gay friends and the idea that the gay community would in those days have wanted to embrace a bourgeois institution like marriage would have been unthinkable, but things change." 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.
Australia is accused of lagging behind a growing number of countries on marriage reform, highlighted by a recent US Supreme Court ruling to legalise same-sex marriage and Ireland voting for the unions in a referendum.
After the Irish vote in May, Abbott said Australia would not follow its lead and hold a referendum and added that any decision would be made by parliament.
The opposition said Abbott's about-turn showed he was changing his mind as he went along, while the Sydney Morning Herald described the prime minister's delaying tactics as "a desperate measure to hold back history".
"If the Australian people want marriage equality they are going to have to divorce Tony Abbott at the next election," Labor frontbencher Jason Clare said.
Labor leader Bill Shorten has pledged to legalise gay marriage if he wins the next election, due sometime next year, but said the party had not given up on marriage equality in the current parliament and would still debate the issue.
Government MP Warren Entsch, who is expected to bring a private member's bill calling for gay marriage to parliament on Monday, said he believed a "handful" of coalition politicians would cross the floor to support the bill but conceded it would not have the numbers to succeed.
Abbott has given no details on how a public vote on gay marriage would occur or when but opposition leader Shorten said a plebiscite had not been held in Australia since 1976.