The leader of the Australian Senate says she’s not in favour of a referendum on equal marriage – despite supporting marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Senator Penny Wong told Australia’s Insight programme: “The reason I don’t support a referendum has been demonstrated in the debate thus far – I don’t believe that I want to be put in a situation…or I want the country and community in a situation, where some of the hateful things that have been said in this debate become so central to the public discourse.

“And you may snigger [directed at audience member] but those of us who are on the receiving end of prejudice, homophobia – who receive letters and texts and tweets about ourselves and our children understand what is out there and what the public debate can be.

“We saw only a glimpse of that. I had to sit in the Senate where one of my colleagues likened this to a discussion about bestiality.”

She added: “If we don’t have a capacity yet to have a compassionate and respectful discussion in the Parliament, then I certainly would be very fearful or concerned about having it more broadly.”

In September 2012, Australian Liberal Party Senator Cory Bernardi said that allowing same-sex couples to marry could lead to sanctioning polygamy and even bestiality.

Mr Bernardi made the comments shortly before Australia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted against a marriage equality bill.

In June, Mr Bernardi defended his original remarks and remained defiant. 

Penny Wong was elected unopposed as leader of the Australian Senate in the same month. 

Ms Wong, a mother of one, first announced her support for equal marriage in November 2010.

She belongs to the same political party as former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Ms Gillard, a firm opponent of marriage equality, announced her resignation as Australia’s prime minister in June after losing a leadership ballot to Kevin Rudd.

Mr Rudd announced his support for equal marriage in May, having previously been against it.

At the weekend, Prime Minister Rudd pledged to allow a full conscience vote on equal marriage within 100 days – if he wins September’s election.

His challenger, Liberal Party leader Tony Abbot remains opposed to marriage equality.