An MP who represents a constituency with one of the highest gay populations in Australia has been elected as leader of the Liberal party.

Malcolm Turnbull was environment minister in the John Howard administration, which lost power to the Labour party in November.

Mr Howard became only the second Prime Minister in Australian history to lose his own Parliamentary seat.

Mr Turnbull, 53, successfully defended the Sydney constituency of Wentworth, which after boundary changes now includes gay districts such as Darlinghurst and Kings Cross.

He succeeds Brendan Nelson, who led the party for less than a year.

The Australian Coalition for Equality welcomed his election and called on him to fulfill a promise made before the election, when he wrote to his constituents:

“I have sought to address and overcome this [same-sex] discrimination. I pledge to continue this fight until justice is done.”

ACE spokesperson Corey Irlam told SX News:

“We call on Malcolm Turnbull to end the Liberal Party’s division and ambivalence over the same-sex law reform currently before parliament, and for him to lead his party to a position of wholehearted support.

“Mr Turnbull holds a seat with one of the highest gay and lesbian populations in Australia, and has a reputation for supporting gay and AIDS issues.

“We congratulate him on his appointment to the Liberal leadership and call on him to get on with the job of dragging his party into the 21st century.”

Gay rights activists in Australia have welcomed a new bill that aims to ensure equal treatment for gay and lesbian couples.

The Same-Sex Entitlements Bill was introduced in the Federal Parliament earlier this month.

It will remove discrimination against same-sex partners in areas like immigration, taxation, veterans’ pensions and aged care, and follows a bill introduced earlier this year aimed at removing discrimination in superannuation.

The Labour government had made a manifesto commitment to reform following last year’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report. It recommended the amendment of 58 laws that discriminate against same-sex couples and their children.

The new legislation, which effects 19 government departments and amends 68 laws, recognises de facto couples, even if one or both partners is still legally married to someone else.

Some Liberal party critics have accused Labour of legalising polygamy.

“The third person in an extramarital relationship can effectively claim the assets of a marriage or of the long-term de facto relationship,” Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella told the Herald Sun.

In 2004, under Prime Minister Howard, federal legislation banning same-sex marriage was passed.

Some had hoped that the defeat of Mr Howard and the Liberals and the election of a Labour government might move the debate about gay marriage forward.

In fact, while Labour has decided to tackle legal inequities between gay and straight couples, it maintains that marriage is only between a man and a woman.