Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard

The ruling Australian Labor Party (ALP) has finally endorsed same-sex marriage rights, but this may not be enough for marriage equality to become a reality in the country.

The change in policy was made on Saturday following an emotional debate and vote on the issue during the party’s annual conference in Sydney.

The motion calls on “all parliamentarians, consistent with their duties as representatives, to gauge their constituents’ views on ways to achieve equal treatment for same sex couples including marriage”.

The move came despite ALP leader and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard believing that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

“You all know what my views on this debate are and I know many in this hall do not agree with my views,” said Gillard at the conference. “But what is the most important thing is that as we have this debate in this hall, we have this debate in a climate and atmosphere of respect.”

Finance Minister Penny Wong, who is openly-lesbian, told delegates: “Never doubt how persistent the campaign for equality is.”

While the news was widely welcomed by LGBT Australians and rights groups, there was concern that the party agreed to allow its MPs to decide for themselves on how to vote on the issue when it comes before parliament – a so-called “conscience vote”.

Another challenge is that the coalition government that governs Australia, of which the ALP is one member, has not endorsed same-sex marriage. This means that, together with the conscience vote, any proposed bills to legalise same-sex marriage in parliament are unlikely to have sufficient support to become law.

Australian Marriage Equality National Convener Alex Greenwich commented that the ALP’s vote reflects the fact that a clear majority of Australians support same-sex marriage rights.

“Labor clearly realises public opinion has changed and it is time to approach the issue with maturity and common sense”, Greenwich said, adding that “it is deeply disappointing the coalition has not reached the same point…”

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