A gay rights activist supporting same-sex marriage
A gay-rights activist holds a banner during a rally supporting same-sex marriage in Sydney, Australia May 31, 2015. Reuters

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has stood by his decision to call for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage while speaking at a conference in New York.

The former leader made the comments while addressing the United States-based Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) group, a conservative Christian group which is heavily against same-sex marriage.

Abbott urged policymakers to keep the traditional institution of marriage alive, but said a national vote would ensure the authority of the Australian people.

He also detailed his decision as Prime Minister to allow a same-sex marriage plebiscite, rather than try and solve the issue in a parliamentary debate.

“I made the decision that it would be easier for Australians who feel strongly about same-sex marriage to accept a decision - either way - if it were made by the whole people not just by the parliament,” he told the 150 guests present.

Abbott’s announcement comes after conservative ministers warned they were not bound by the results of a plebiscite and may vote against same sex marriage.

Liberal senator Eric Abetz this week said that the public’s vote would not necessarily be a go for or against same-sex marriage.

“Every member of parliament will make up his or her mind after the plebiscite is held. People will take into account the view of the electorate, the views of the nation and their own personal views,” he said.

In his speech to the ADF group, Abbott explained that once the Coalition has returned to parliament, MPs who back same-sex marriage will make a request on behalf of the nation to finalise the bill. MPs will then make the bill legal, providing security for LGBTQ people whose views may clash with other people and religions.

“The bill will then be put to the people at a plebiscite,” he said.

“This is the best way to decide something that’s so important but so personal: it is to let the people decide so that the decision, whichever way it goes, will have their authority.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defended his predecessor’s right to speak, saying Abbot was “entitled to express [his views]” - a sentiment backed by Senator Michaelia Cash.

“You would need to speak to Tony about why he decided to give the speech but in terms of the broader picture, freedom of speech, we applaud it,” Cash said.

Senator Cash said she would stand by the results of a plebiscite, no matter the stance the Australian people held. She said her colleagues who vote against a potential ‘yes’ result would have to explain their decision to the public.

“I am opposed to marriage equality, however should the Australian people vote in favour of it I will support the will of the Australian people,” she said.