Gay rights activists in Australia and pro-equality politicians are bracing themselves for a parliamentary defeat on equal marriage, even as a public consultation on the matter finds record support for the measure.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs held a long public consultation on equal marriage, for which it received a record amount of responses — 276,437 in all — with 64 per cent in support.

However, the seven-member parliamentary committee was divided, with 4-2 against equal marriage, and one abstention. The committee submitted a report today with no recommendations.

The committee’s chairman, Graham Perrett, who has two gay brothers and is pro-equality, said he thinks the measure is headed for a defeat in the parliament. He was joined by another Labor MP, Laura Smyth, in support of marriage equality.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, opposes equal marriage, but will allow members of her party to vote according to their conscience. It is expected that at least 36 out of 70 Labor MPs will favour equality, with 10 to 15 undecided, and the rest opposed.

By contrast, the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, a Roman Catholic, will whip members of his right-wing Liberal Party to reject equal marriage, even as other members of his party have said they support the measure.

A legislator for the Greens, Adam Brandt, who has introduced one of the two bills on equal marriage, has said today that he will not allow voting on the bill unless Mr Abbott allows his party a conscience vote on the issue. However, the other bill, introduced by Labor’s Stephen Jones, is expected to go ahead, though it seems headed for a defeat, as he himself acknowledged today.

Australia last amended its constitution in 2004, with unanimous support from Labor and the Liberals to define marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. However, many recent polls have found that a majority of Australians back equal marriage, and a high-profile campaign has been launched by celebrities in the country to bolster the cause.