The New South Wales Young Nationals have voted to support marriage equality, putting the youth wing of the party at odds with its federal parliamentary branch.
The party endorsed marriage equality during its annual conference at the weekend, held in the town of Corowa on the banks of the Murray river, near the border between NSW and Victoria.
“There was a spirited debate from the both sides and it was narrowly won,” Nationals state director, Nathan Quigley, told the Border Mail newspaper. “The Young Nationals are the first conservative youth wing to back marriage equality.”
In a statement released on Monday afternoon, the group pointed to the high suicide rate for young gay men living in rural areas as a reason to support same-sex marriage. It also noted that the party supported the decriminalisation of gay sex in the 1970s.
“This outcome continues a proud NSW Young Nats tradition of working within the Nationals to push the envelope in terms of policy, challenging our senior counterparts and leading the debate on important issues to young people in regional NSW,” the statement said.
The endorsement comes just weeks after the Coalition denied its parliamentary members a free vote on the matter, instead opting to let voters have a say after the next election via either a plebiscite or a referendum.
The prime minister, Tony Abbott, insisted that the Coalition was simply keeping its promise to the electorate by sticking with its pre-election position to oppose same-sex marriage.
But the issue has divided the party, and several Nationals MPs, including the leader of the Nationals in the Senate, Nigel Scullion, have publicly thrown their support behind same-sex marriage.
Part of the NSW Young Nationals’ motion was to condemn the goverment’s decision to deny its members a conscience vote.
Advocates said the endorsement from the youth wing proves that theCoalition has lost touch.
“The Young Nationals’ decision sends a message to leaders of the Coalition government that they are out of step with young voters, including young conservatives,” the national director of Australian Marriage Equality, Rodney Croome, said.
“I welcome the Young Nationals standing up for the Coalition’s tradition of allowing free votes at a time when their seniors seem to have lost sight of that tradition.”
Many National MPs and senators have said by expressing their opposition to same-sex marriage they are representing the views of their largely conservative electorates.
Michael McCormack, federal National MP for the NSW seat of Riverina, told Guardian Australia that same-sex marriage was not a priority for his electorate.
“I still maintain that across regional Australia, I don’t think it’s an issue that’s top of mind,” he said. “I don’t get asked about it all the time.”
He said that the NSW youth branch has always been “out on the edge a little bit, pushing the envelope”.
Analysis undertaken by Guardian Australia shows that the fate of same-sex marriage in the Senate, if it came to a vote, could rest with a handful of senators who have yet to declare their position.
Darren Chester, the first Nationals MP to publicly support same-sex marriage,comprehensively won a disendorsement motion against himlast month over his stance.
Last month the Australian Liberal students’ federation endorsed the Coalition’s opposition to same-sex marriage, saying the Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, should stay as it is.
“The constitution founded by our forefathers is important enough that the will of a greater majority of our citizens would be required to bring a change,” the president, Jean-Luc Corelli, said.
“Therefore, you would think that the institution of marriage, being far more entrenched in our traditional or religious beliefs, would deserve the same standard.”