Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has insisted that debating gay people’s right to marry is “legitimate” as the country gears up for a public vote on the issue.

The Liberal party leader called for respectful debate over the issue of marriage equality as his government prepares to spend $122 million on a legally non-binding vote asking Australians whether gay couples should have the right to tie the knot or not.

Despite acknowledging that some of the public discourse surrounding the vote had been “hurtful”, Mr Turnbull insisted that people had a right to express their opposition to marriage equality because the issue of allowing gay couples to marry is “a legitimate debate”.

He told 2Day FM host Em Rusciano that shutting down debate around the issue of equality undermined the case for same-sex marriage.

“You cannot ask respect from the no case if you’re not prepared to give respect to the no case,” he said.

“The vast majority of people who do not agree with same-sex marriage… they are not homophobic, they don’t denigrate gay people. They have a view about marriage and they believe it should remain between a man and a woman.”

Challenged over homophobic campaign materials used by anti-gay marriage activists, including a poster found in Melbourne recently urging Australians to ‘stop the fags’, Mr Turnbull said that he “deplored” disrespectful language but that “the only way to stop people saying things that you find hurtful is to shut down free speech.”

Asked if he personally found the posters hurtful, he replied: “Well, yes I do.”

Mr Turnbull said that anti-gay marriage posters such as one found in Melbourne associating same-sex parenting with child abuse were an inevitable consequence of “free speech”.

Mr Turnbull added that he and his wife Lucy would be voting in favour of equal marriage in the upcoming postal vote, which will get underway on September 12 should it survive two high court challenges expected to take place the week before.

Reiterating his support for marriage equality, Mr Turnbull said: “The threats to traditional marriage… are not gay people getting married, the threats are desertion, cruelty, neglect, abandonment, indifference – those are the threats.

Australia’s upcoming vote will see citizens at home and abroad who are aged 18 before August 24 – the registration deadline – answer the question: ‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’

The vote is not a plebiscite, and therefore citizens will not be compelled to vote and the result is not binding on politicians.

Those wishing to vote are encouraged to return their voting forms by  October 27, while ballots received after November 7 will not be counted. The result is expected to be made public on November 15.

Australians living in the UK who wish to vote must enrol by midnight Thursday 24 August (Australian time) and can do so .

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