As the Liberal Party splinters further on same-sex marriage, both ends of the debate are arguing for a different kind of free vote. By Karen Middleton.

What’s next for same-sex marriage

Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, left, and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

In the marshalling area before Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, the political parties’ floats and the contingents marching with them are lined up side by side every year.

And that’s where Bill Shorten bumped into the first openly gay lower house MP last Saturday, the new Liberal member for North Sydney, Trent Zimmerman.

When Zimmerman was spotted, the Labor leader went to shake his hand. Putting the sentiment of the occasion ahead of party politics, the Liberal MP hugged him instead.

Shorten’s staff snapped a picture and posted it on social media as a friendly bipartisan moment. But when it appeared on the front page of a newspaper on Monday, it angered some of Zimmerman’s less rainbow-inclined colleagues, who sniped that he should not be fraternising with the enemy.

“It’s a bit sad that politics has reached the point where something as human as giving another person a hug becomes a cause for concern,” Zimmerman told The Saturday Paper.

Shorten and his wife, Chloe, joined his frontbench colleagues Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese at the parade, marching under banners declaring “It’s time” to underline Labor’s promise to legislate in favour of same-sex marriage within 100 days of a Labor government being elected. 

Zimmerman was glad to see Shorten there and is brushing off his colleagues’ criticism. But the issue goes further than that.

Divisions within the Liberal party are once again verging on open warfare, with opponents and proponents of same-sex marriage now arguing publicly.

Tasmanian MP Andrew Nikolic, who favours retaining the traditional definition of marriage, supports holding a plebiscite – the course former prime minister Tony Abbott set with party room backing in August last year.

But he wants the plebiscite to record the vote “booth by booth, electorate by electorate, state by state” so it is an accurate reflection of Australians’ views.

“If a majority of people in my electorate vote in favour of same-sex marriage, I would take that as their will and I would vote consistent with that in any future legislative change, notwithstanding any personal view that I may hold,” Nikolic told The Saturday Paper

“I’m going to be bound by what my electorate says, irrespective of what my party says or my state says.” 

He denies that amounts to wanting a free vote. But his Cairns-based colleague, the Liberal member for Leichhardt, Warren Entsch, has blasted back at Nikolic, insisting it amounted to a free vote and accusing him of seeking to “have it both ways”.

“When he agreed to the former prime minister’s decision to have a plebiscite, he forfeited his right to vote according to his constituents,” Entsch said.

“I put a challenge out to Nikolic now. If he is so determined to have a vote on this in the parliament, stand up in the party room and call for a free vote.” He said it was Nikolic and others opposed to same-sex marriage who “said, ‘No, no, no, let’s put it to the Australian public.’ ”

Entsch called on Nikolic and those who shared his view to ditch the plebiscite and agree to a parliamentary vote instead.

“It’s still not too late,” he said. “If he wants a free vote, argue for a free vote in the parliament. Let’s not waste $160 million… If they’re not prepared to have the guts to stand up in the party room and argue to have that free vote before the plebiscite, they’ve forfeited the right to have a free vote afterwards.”

Entsch rattles off a long list of projects in his electorate on which he could better spend $160 million, from mental health services to a new stadium and a university innovation centre.

He said if others would agree to dump the plebiscite and save the money, he would be happy for those savings to be shared around and spent on similar projects elsewhere. 

In response, Andrew Nikolic referred to Coalition MPs’ decision last year after a marathon special meeting to discuss the issue.

“I continue to support the decision we reached in the party room last August,” he said, describing it as “a very strong position” supported almost two to one in favour of retaining a traditional definition of marriage and of holding a future plebiscite on change. 

“If others choose to advocate a different course of action, that’s up to them. It wasn’t former prime minister Tony Abbott’s decision, it was the party room’s decision to go to the people on this matter, which is a decision I continue to support.”

1 . ‘Ambushed’

Entsch is unhappy at how the whole same-sex marriage debate has been handled, especially last year’s meeting.

He and other supporters of marriage equality were angry that Abbott invited the Nationals into the Liberal party room to decide the position, because they believed the move was designed to ensure traditional marriage prevailed. 

Entsch had drafted his own private member’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage and favoured a free vote.

As described in Niki Savva’s The Road to Ruin, published this week, Abbott encouraged Entsch to wait until the second year of government to bring it on. 

After a private meeting with Abbott in August last year, Entsch believed he had the then prime minister’s agreement to support a free vote. According to Entsch’s version, Abbott encouraged him to raise the issue at the next party room meeting.

But Abbott then called an unexpected special meeting, for which the opponents of same-sex marriage had clearly been prepared, pushing forward the idea of holding a plebiscite.

Entsch told Savva he and others had been “ambushed”.

Savva writes that the way the issue was handled that day contributed to Abbott’s defeat a month later.

After Turnbull won the September leadership ballot, the Nationals presented him with a list of demands in return for their ongoing support – including upholding the plan for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage.

But prominent Liberals outside parliament are now lining up to call for the plebiscite to be abandoned.

Former NSW premier Nick Greiner says it’s drawing attention away from other issues.

“Last year opponents of marriage equality may have thought a plebiscite was a clever delaying tactic, but now it is distracting the government from the economy, tax reform and national security and will do so right up to the election and beyond,” he wrote in The Daily Telegraph.

“Every comparable country has dealt with this through parliament unless a constitutional change was needed. Why not Australia? … We can do this in 2016 through parliament with less expense and division than through a nationwide opinion poll.”

2 . Kennett’s criticism

Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett went further, accusing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of cowardice.

“If Malcolm had any courage he would have simply stood up and said: ‘I’m going to put this through the parliament,’ ” Kennett told Sydney radio 2UE this week. “What he’s saying now [is] ‘This decision, this policy position, was decided by Tony Abbott and we’re going to stay with it.’ For goodness sake, most of the things that Tony stood for, Malcolm’s walked away from, why is he supporting this one now? Because of a lack of courage.” 

Attorney-General George Brandis reignited the issue on Sunday, when he named a specific time frame for the planned plebiscite on same-sex marriage.

“Were the government to be re-elected, there will be a plebiscite,” Brandis told Sky News. “The plebiscite will occur before the end of this year.”

It wasn’t accidental language – he said it five times.

But Turnbull’s office declined to endorse the time frame.

In an interview with SBS TV’s Patrick Abboud, recorded during Mardi Gras and the day before Brandis’s comments, Turnbull outlined his thinking on timing.

“As you know, if the election is right up towards the end of the year then there may not be enough time, but if it’s earlier then there could be,” he said. “I can absolutely guarantee to you that if my government is returned there will be a plebiscite on same-sex marriage after the election and if the plebiscite is carried then same-sex marriage will be law.”

Several government sources said Brandis’s time frame was based on the assumption of a July election – something being so widely speculated it is starting to look like an open secret, despite there having been no official decision.

A spokesman referred back to Brandis’s words, saying most Australians wanted it to be dealt with quickly.

Brandis has been consulting those organisations and institutions with a direct interest in the issue, including the leaders of churches and businesses seeking to be exempt from performing marriage ceremonies or providing wedding services for same-sex couples. 

He is expected to draft a submission governing the plebiscite process and the question to be asked, to go before cabinet and then the Coalition party room. The government is expected to allocate funding for a “yes” and a “no” case.

3 . Sorting out the process

Senior government sources said it would be preferable to have the process bedded down before the federal election.

Advocates for same-sex marriage say consideration is being given to drafting the legislation so it triggers a change in the law automatically if the plebiscite approves it, bypassing the need for another parliamentary vote. But this could not be confirmed.

One official pointed to the difficulty in getting young people to enrol to vote once they turned 18 and pondered whether the plebiscite could be used as an opportunity to encourage them.

“It would be an interesting enrolment exercise,” he said.

The government will determine how the plebiscite will be conducted – including whether voting will be voluntary or compulsory – in a formal agreement with the Australian Electoral Commission. Plebiscites are not defined in the constitution, the Electoral Act or the Referendum Act, and the rules and process can differ for each plebiscite according to the detail of that agreement.

Officially, the government is not bound by the result.

Labor and the Greens oppose holding a plebiscite. Labor’s policy is to legislate in favour of same-sex marriage if it wins the election and offer its MPs a free vote.

Turnbull has said if the Coalition wins the election, he will proceed with the plebiscite as soon as possible and honour the result. 

“It’s binding – whatever the majority is,” Warren Entsch told The Saturday Paper. “If there’s 10 million people that vote on it and five million and one say ‘yes’, then the answer is yes.”

Similarly, Entsch says, if the answer is “no” then it’s no.

But Treasurer Scott Morrison, like Nikolic, holds a different view. He, too, is saying the overall result should not be binding on parliamentarians.

“We are going to let all Australians make up their own mind and not have them directed one way or the other,” he told Sydney’s 2GB. “Members of parliament should be free to express their views on this as they see fit.”

Morrison went further, insisting Australians should be compelled to vote in the plebiscite as they are in an ordinary election and a referendum.

“A plebiscite is a simple majority but it is a compulsory vote, too, which is different to what was done in other places like Ireland,” he said. “So, everyone will have to show up like they do in an election and I think that is important because we have got to make this decision. Everyone is going to have to live with whatever that decision is on the other side and the more people that can participate in a respectful way I think the better.”

He said he was optimistic everyone could treat everyone else with respect and sensitivity in the “robust place” that is parliament.

“Then I have no doubt that we can do this properly and there will be a decision and we will all have to live with that decision.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2016 as "What’s next for equal marriage".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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