Jun 29, 12:38 AM EDT

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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) -- Australia's opposition leader on Wednesday explained his shift on gay marriage, which will be a key issue in this weekend's elections.

The center-left Labor Party opposes the conservative government's plan to hold a plebiscite this year to allow the public a direct say on whether Australia should give legal recognition to same-sex marriage.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten confirmed a newspaper report on Wednesday, three days before the election, that he had told Christian church leaders in 2013 that he supported holding such a plebiscite.

Labor's position now is that Parliament should make the decision on same-sex marriage.

Shorten cited as a reason for his change of heart the Irish referendum in May last year in which 62 percent of Irish voters called for their constitution to be changed to allow same-sex marriage.

"That debate, whilst it was ultimately successful, did trigger some very ugly arguments," Shorten told reporters.

"I think the people of Australia, the majority of them, have clearly moved - even in the last two or three years - to supporting marriage equality and all popular opinion polls would seem to indicate the truth of what I'm saying," he added.

Both Shorten and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull support same sex marriage, but differ on how it should be achieved.

Shorten has promised that if his party was elected on Saturday, the first legislation he would introduce to Parliament would be a bill to overturn Australia's ban on same-sex marriage.

Most marriage equality advocates support Labor's approach. Turnbull also previously opposed the plebiscite and the divisive community debate that would precede it. But Turnbull agreed to maintain the government's policy to hold a plebiscite when he defeated Prime Minister Tony Abbott in a leadership ballot in September last year.

The plebiscite would cost 160 million Australian dollars ($120 million) and the result would have no legal standing.

Some government lawmakers have already said they would vote down gay marriage in Parliament regardless of the plebiscite's outcome.

But Turnbull said that if most Australians wanted gay marriage, legislation allowing it would "sail through the Parliament."

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