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Australia gay marriage lobby to push for vote by MPs

[SYDNEY] Advocates of gay marriage in Australia vowed on Tuesday to keep fighting for a parliamentary decision on legalising same-sex unions after a planned referendum was blocked.

Australia's upper house Senate late Monday rejected a government proposal for a plebiscite of 15 million people on the issue, with the Labor opposition, Greens and crossbench MPs arguing it would be expensive and spark divisive debate.

Several gay senators, including Labor's Penny Wong and Louise Pratt, made impassioned pleas against the plan, saying it would denigrate their families and subject them to hate speech.

Many gay rights campaigners agree and instead favour a free vote in parliament.

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"The plebiscite was a policy that no-one will miss, yet wasting time dancing on its grave will not achieve marriage equality," Australian Marriage Equality chair Alex Greenwich said.

"Now that the prospect of a plebiscite has been defeated, no-one need be distracted by a debate by politicians on a public vote versus a parliamentary vote.

"The path ahead is clear and direct and remains what it has always been, a vote in parliament by our elected representatives."

Debate on gay marriage has gone on for more than a decade in Australia and conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a long-time supporter of equal rights, wanted to resolve the issue via a plebiscite on February 11.

He argued that a public vote, costing some A$170 million (S$182 million), would allow all Australians to express their view.

Mr Turnbull has not spelled out what he plans to do now, but conservative politicians have previously warned that defeat for the plebiscite would push the issue off their agenda and delay same-sex marriage for years.

The New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby said a conscience vote in parliament - where politicians are not restricted to party policy - was the most appropriate place to resolve the standoff.

"Marriage equality is supported by MPs of all persuasions," said the organisation's co-convenor Chris Pycroft.

"We urge Mr Turnbull to allow his coalition colleagues a vote on legislation so that we can get this done once and for all." Despite strong popular support for marriage equality, Australia is seen as lagging behind nations that allow homosexual couples the right to wed.

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.

Attorney-General George Brandis pressed ahead and introduced the plebiscite bill into the Senate, where the government does not hold an outright majority, despite Labor and the Greens making clear they would scupper it.

During the fiery debate, he urged the upper house to "stop playing politics with gay people's lives".