It has turned into a complex political and legal issue that has divided public opinion, but the Australian government says it is confident it has found a way forward.
The ruling conservatives say they will make a second attempt this week to get the support of the Senate for a compulsory plebiscite on whether to allow same-sex marriage.
But if it fails again, as many expect, the government says it will hold a non-compulsory ‘postal vote’ on the issue in November.
Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian Prime Minister, made the announcement in a news conference.
“All Australians will have their say,” he insisted. “They will get the opportunity to express their opinion on the issue of whether the law should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry, fulfilling the commitment we made at the election.”
The Senate, the upper house of the Australian parliament, rejected the government’s plebiscite plan last November and experts say unless there is a major upset it is likely to reject the government’s second attempt.
Turnbull says the compulsory national vote is the government’s favoured option but the voluntary postal ballot would be used if the Senate comes back again with another rejection.
But critics, including gay rights groups, have been urging the government to simply organise a conscience vote in parliament and let MPs decide the issue themselves, to avoid divisive campaigning.
Supporters of a plebiscite, however, argue that it is important that everyone has the right to have a say on the issue.
It is estimated the cost of holding a ‘postal ballot’ would be 122 million Australian dollars.
Turnbull’s Liberal Party, which has led a coalition government since July 2016, this week rejected calls to scrap the election promise of putting the issue to a popular vote.
Alex Greenwich from the group Australian Marriage Equality told reporters: “There will be disappointment felt from coast to coast tonight in Australia as the government has yet again decided to delay, drag on and disappoint people with their decision today.
“They had the opportunity to resolve this matter through a vote in parliament and they said ‘no’. They said ‘we’re going to drag this out.’
But there may be legal issues for Turnbull.
Some experts have said that even the holding of a voluntary ballot by post might have to be approved by the Senate.
There is also talk of a possible legal challenge by opponents who want a simple vote in parliament on the issue.
Latest opinion polls show more than 60 percent of Australians, including the prime minister, support same-sex marriage.
Turnbull said he respected the views of those against same-sex marriage but would vote yes in any vote and would encourage others to do the same.
Civil partnerships or registered relationships are possible in most Australian states but they are not considered to be legal marriages.