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After weeks of cross-party communication, a plan has formed to bring legislation for same-sex marriage into its final phase. By Karen Middleton.

Parliamentary push for same-sex marriage

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Perth this week.
Credit: AAP IMAGE / RICHARD WAINWRIGHT

On Monday, a multi-party line-up of federal parliamentarians assembled at a single, unusual news conference in Adelaide.

“We come from a pretty wide set of political perspectives but we’re joined on this issue,” Labor’s senate leader, Penny Wong, said by way of explanation.

They were calling for an investigation into the alleged upstream theft of water in the Murray–Darling river system. It was a rare display of cross-chamber unity.

Another issue is also drawing politicians of different stripes together – albeit in a much more clandestine manner.

For many weeks, some of the small group of Liberal MPs agitating for action to legalise same-sex marriage have been holding quiet, private talks with Labor and the Greens on how they might collaborate to achieve their common objective.

They have discussed how to bring the issue to decision in the parliament, rather than accept the status quo or wait for a nationwide plebiscite they don’t support and that the senate has rejected.

Given the flashpoint sensitivity of the issue and strenuous opposition from the Coalition’s conservative wing, none of the Liberals campaigning for change will acknowledge any conversations with those who are otherwise their political opponents.

When The Saturday Paper asked one of the lead campaigners, Queensland Liberal Warren Entsch, about the cross-party talks, he responded: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Asked again, he would only repeat his statement.

But another MP who has been involved told The Saturday Paper the talks have been occurring “back and forth for a long time”. A second concurred, saying: “Yes, there have been.”

Warren Entsch will confirm that the rebel MPs’ objectives are no surprise to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. While Entsch does not claim Turnbull endorsed their moves, he says they were discussed well before this week. It’s understood Turnbull was also aware of the backbenchers’ proposed actions before Christopher Pyne was recorded telling a private meeting of Liberal moderates last month that there would be moves on same-sex marriage “sooner than everyone thinks”.

Referring to the prime minister, Entsch told The Saturday Paper: “I’ve had conversations and they’ve been very cordial.” He rejected the suggestion in some media reports that Turnbull had issued a sudden request for explanation this week. “We’ve explained what we’re trying to do.”

Entsch said he had not spoken to Turnbull “in the last week or so … But we’ve been talking to him. He knows what we’re about.”

What they are about is trying to have parliament vote on a private member’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage, drafted by West Australian Liberal senator Dean Smith, a move that would contravene the party’s policy on a non-binding plebiscite. Turnbull backs the plebiscite.

“We have a policy,” Turnbull told journalists in Perth this week. “I am for the policy we took to the election. Right? That’s our policy. It has not changed. That’s my commitment.”

The pro-change MPs face strong opposition from their own conservative colleagues, who devised the plebiscite as an alternative to a standalone parliamentary vote and one more likely to see change rejected.

Some colleagues who support changing the law still oppose the agitation for a parliamentary vote, insisting the Coalition should make good on its promise to gauge the nation’s view first.

Along with Dean Smith in the senate, Entsch is one of four Liberal MPs in the house of representatives – the others being Trevor Evans, also from Queensland, Trent Zimmerman from New South Wales, and Tim Wilson from Victoria – who are actively pushing for change.

The issue will come to a head next week as parliament resumes after a six-week winter break.

Turnbull is reported to be considering offering a secret ballot in the Coalition party room to test support for the plebiscite, confident the existing policy will be upheld.

While next week’s course is not certain, it appears likely that Smith and his colleagues will ask their fellow Liberals to let his bill be put on the parliamentary notice paper. It would then be introduced into parliament, as is protocol for a private member’s bill, the following Monday.

They are likely to argue both for it to be allowed to proceed to a vote, which is at the government’s discretion, and also for Liberal MPs and senators to have a conscience vote, as they have on other controversial bills in the past.

They point to precedent, arguing previous Coalition governments had allowed conscience votes on legislation at the request of conservatives Kevin Andrews and Tony Abbott on euthanasia and the abortion drug RU486 respectively.

The pro-change MPs are confident their argument to have the bill at least put on the notice paper will be hard to reject. But that does not guarantee it is brought to a vote.

Entsch is refusing to canvass possibilities. “What will be, will be,” he says. He will be absent from parliament for three months from September, taking up a position as an Australian delegate to the United Nations in New York, but insists that is not dictating timing.

The Saturday Paper understands from other sources that once the bill is introduced, one of the pro-change Liberals in the house would likely move what’s known as a procedural motion to suspend the chamber’s standing orders and bring the bill on for debate urgently, preventing it from being pushed perpetually to the bottom of the list, as happens with private member’s bills the government does not want passed.

Labor and the Greens’ Adam Bandt would support such a motion, as would independents Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie, and Rebekha Sharkie from the Nick Xenophon Team.

Four more votes still would be needed for the suspension to succeed and the bill to be brought on.

The agitators for change have not confirmed either that they will move the suspension motion or vote for it. If they did, it would not technically be crossing the floor – politically or literally.

First, the motion would come from their own ranks.

Second, those voting affirmative would be called to sit on the government side of the chamber – the side the Liberals are already on.

So it would be Labor, the Greens and supportive independents physically crossing the floor to join them.

The opposition had been prepared to move the suspension motion but Liberal Tim Wilson indicated this week he wouldn’t support that.

“I have consistently said I will not vote for a procedural motion or a bill sponsored by the Labor Party,” Wilson told The Saturday Paper.

He has not ruled out voting for one generated by Liberals.

On that basis, Labor has agreed to let the pro-change Liberal group take the lead.

“We don’t want to do anything that would embarrass, or cause more difficulty for, particular members of the Liberal Party,” shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus told ABC TV’s Lateline on Wednesday night. “We want this to happen.”

Some in the Coalition are also concerned the pro-change Liberals’ actions are undermining Turnbull’s authority, describing it as “a suicide mission” that could destabilise his grip on power.

Others reject that as melodrama from people who don’t want to see the Marriage Act changed.

Victorian Nationals MP Andrew Broad has threatened previously to quit the Coalition and to sit on the crossbench if the government abandons its plebiscite promise.

Although he would likely support the Coalition remaining in government, in a parliament where it has a one-seat majority that could undermine stability.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott entered the fray on Wednesday, in an interview on 2GB.

“It’s obviously a dramatic loss of discipline inside the government,” he said. “It’s a serious attack on the authority of the leadership but at the end of the day it is a breach of faith with the electorate and I hope they will think long and hard before they do that because it runs contrary to everything they got elected on.”

Mention of a breach of faith enrages Warren Entsch, who accuses Tony Abbott of exactly that in the lead-up to the six-hour meeting at which the plebiscite was adopted almost two years ago.

Entsch remains angry that Abbott conducted the debate in a combined meeting of Liberals and Nationals, rather than with Liberals alone.

The addition of the Nationals’ numbers ensured Entsch’s bill failed.

After Abbott had refused to countenance a Labor-generated private member’s bill in 2015, Entsch had gathered signatures on a cross-party bill.

At 7.35am on the morning of Tuesday, August 11, 2015, just weeks before Abbott was deposed, the then prime minister sent Entsch a text message.

“Warren, I said I’d get back re your same-sex marriage,” the message read. “As you know, I would prefer it never come up. If it must, I suppose today’s partyroom is as good as any. Cheers, Tony.”

It was without warning, leaving Entsch and his supporters scrambling. Entsch accuses Abbott of misleading others about whether the issue would come up in the meeting. As history reflects, the joint party meeting rejected the bill, endorsing a plebiscite instead.

“I was following his instructions and then he ambushed me,” Entsch says.

Some frontbench Coalition members who also support legalising same-sex marriage but defend the plebiscite policy are warning against defiance.

“It is of course a right which people should exercise carefully with caution and with consideration for all of the consequences,” the education minister, Simon Birmingham, told Sky News. “And therefore I would urge everybody to think about the policy that we took to the last election, to work as hard as we can to ensure that that is implemented if it possibly can be.”

He and others are putting the onus back on Labor.

Victorian Nationals frontbencher Darren Chester says Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and his party could resolve the issue immediately.

“He wants a free vote for the 226 members and senators but he won’t give a free vote to millions of Australians,” Chester told ABC Radio National on Thursday.

“Gay couples would have been on their honeymoons by now if Bill Shorten had let Australians vote in the plebiscite earlier this year.”

The prime minister has called Liberal MPs back to Canberra on Monday afternoon for a special party meeting to discuss the issue, ahead of a joint meeting on Tuesday to determine a way forward.

Conservatives who oppose the agitators’ activities are threatening privately to ensure they face retribution at preselection.

Wilson and Entsch both dismiss the threats. Entsch condemns them as anonymous, cowardly and hollow.

He has also blasted the president of the Queensland Liberal National Party, Gary Spence, for an email he sent to all LNP members, condemning Entsch and his colleagues.

“I am disappointed that views that do not accord with the party’s policy have been aired publicly,” Spence’s email says. “I am equally disappointed that members elected under the LNP banner have chosen to take a position that defies LNP policy and the wishes of the LNP’s membership.”

Spence described the marriage issue as a “distraction” and “peripheral to the everyday fundamentals that Australian families need for a prosperous future”.

Entsch accuses Spence of seeking to interfere with an MP’s duties, something he calls “borderline illegal”.

He also rejects the compromise now being promoted within the government of a non-compulsory, non-binding postal plebiscite – which would not need legislation to proceed.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is among those advocating for it as a speedier, cheaper alternative.

Entsch fears many Australians would not manage to return the voting form and would be disenfranchised.

Turnbull has declined to offer a view this week on a postal plebiscite, but 20 years ago, in the context of the republic referendum, he described the concept as flying in the face of democratic values. Then, he called it “a method of voting which is calculated to disenfranchise people, particularly young people”.

With questions over the legality of any postal plebiscite result and warnings it would be open to challenge, it appears likely to be only a fallback, with the Coalition more likely to seek to have the original plebiscite legislation reintroduced in the hope the senate would now pass it to stop the issue dragging on.

That doesn’t preclude the pro-change agitators from pursuing their course, however.

After that first marathon party room meeting, Abbott added a caveat that gave the Coalition the active option to change policy after the 2016 election.

“I’ve come to the view – I believe this is the party room view – that this is the last term in which the Coalition party room can be bound, although we will definitely maintain the current position for the life of this term,” he said at the time. “Going into the next election, we will finalise another position.”

More than a year since that election, the time has come to decide.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 5, 2017 as "A marriage of inconvenience". Subscribe here.

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

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