Pro-equality groups in Australia have warned about a potential loophole that could be used to water down proposals for same-sex marriage.

The country’s right-wing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has repeatedly blocked free Parliamentary votes on equal marriage, instead making plans to take the issue to the public in a non-binding plebiscite (public vote) to avoid a rift with his own conservative anti-LGBT MPs.

Having already agreed to stall the issue until after last month’s federal election, Turnbull – who now holds a wafer-thin majority – has promised to bring forward the plebiscite plan as soon as possible.

Ahead of confirmation that the plebiscite will be held next February, a draft question was leaked to the media this week.

It reads: “Do you approve of a law to permit people of the same sex to marry?”

Activists are concerned about the wording of the draft question – which does not seek a direct mandate to equalise existing marriage laws to include same-sex couples  leaving wiggle room for same-sex unions to be watered down at the legislative stage.

As no draft legislation has been released so far, the question leaves the door open to a same-sex union compromise that may end up governed separately from the ‘institution of marriage’ even in the event of a resounding Yes vote.

Ireland’s 2015 referendum, by contrast, directly affirmed the amendment: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

Brian Greig, spokesperson for lobbying group Just.Equal, said the “sneaky wording” of the question avoids any mention of equal inclusion under the existing Marriage Act.

He said: “This wording is deeply concerning because it suggests that the government wants to create a separate area of marriage law only for same-sex couples, rather than include them in existing laws. That’s not equality, that’s segregation.

“I call on the Attorney to show the Australian people exactly what marriage legislation will be presented to parliament if the plebiscite is successful.

“The voters have a right to know exactly what the Bill will look like after a plebiscite so they can make an informed decision as they vote.”

“Australians do not want to be duped into voting for what they think is marriage equality, if in fact the government is planning segregated marriage along with excluding transgender and intersex people from any future legislation.”