By Colin Packham and Tom Westbrook
SYDNEY (Reuters) - The majority of Australians support same-sex marriage, a national survey showed on Wednesday, paving the way for legislation to make the country the 26th nation to formalize the unions by the end of the year.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics said 61.6 percent of voters cast their ballots in support of same-sex marriage in the controversial voluntary postal survey, with 38.4 percent opposing.
Almost 80 percent of the country's eligible voters took part - a higher voter turnout than Britain's Brexit vote and Ireland's same-sex marriage referendum.
The poll is non-binding but Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull immediately said he would fulfill a pledge to put a proposal to parliament to pass laws on marriage equality by the end of the year.
"It is unequivocal, it is overwhelming," Turnbull said of the survey result.
"They have spoken in their millions and they have voted overwhelmingly yes for marriage equality," he told reporters in Canberra. "They voted yes for fairness, yes for commitment, yes for love."
The result marks a watershed moment for gay rights in Australia, where it was illegal in some states to engage in homosexual activity until 1997.
Thousands of supporters who had gathered in a central Sydney park to mark the result broke into a loud cheer, hugged each other and cried as it was delivered live over a big screen by the country's chief statistician.
The result boosted the carnival atmosphere with some people carrying banners declaring "our love is real" and many sheltering from the hot sun under rainbow umbrellas. Among the crowd were men and women wearing wedding dresses and corsets and sequined suits.
(Reporting By Colin Packham and Tom Westbrook. Writing by Jane Wardell.; Editing by Michael Perry)