Prime Minister Tony Abbott has declared it is his “strong disposition” to put same-sex marriage to a popular vote after the next election.
Mr Abbott called a snap Coalition party room meeting on Tuesday afternoon to test support for maintaining the current Government position against legalising same-sex marriage.
There was a clear majority in favour of keeping the status quo.
Mr Abbott reiterated in Question Time that meant ministers must vote against it.
“Members of the executive as usual, as always, are bound by the policies of the Government,” he said.
After the party room debate, Mr Abbott had suggested a plebiscite or referendum could be held after the next election to allow voters to have a say.
During Question Time he reaffirmed that position.
“Our strong disposition, Mr Speaker, is to go into the next election with a commitment to put this to the people,” Mr Abbott said.
“Going in to the next election there will be two parties with very different positions.
“Members opposite will want the politicians to decide, this Government wants the people to decide.”
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also supported including voters in the process.
After Question Time she wrote on Twitter: “It’s my view the Australian people should have a direct say on this issue.”
Social Services Minister Scott Morrison also voiced his support for a public referendum saying the matter should be determined by the Australian people.
“But the question at the next election is about who will decide this matter on the other side of the election and our view is the Australian people should decide that, not politicians, not judges, but the people of Australia,” he told the 7.30 program.
Popular vote at odds with PM’s previous position: Di Natale
But Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese warned a popular vote also risked a rancorous public debate, saying he had received emails which he described as “pretty offensive”.
Speaking on Macquarie Radio, Mr Albanese said they were evidence a campaign could inflame tensions.
“Given the nature of some of the emails that I’ve got, which are pretty offensive, [there] is the danger of a really divisive public debate that vilifies people for who they are,” he said.
“That’s one of the real concerns that I have, to be frank.”
Greens leader Richard Di Natale said the suggestion of a plebiscite was at odds with Mr Abbott’s previous assertion that any change to the definition of marriage ought be “owned by the parliament”.
“He talks about it as a second-order issue, one that doesn’t warrant dominating the political discourse in this parliament and yet he says that it is worthy of a plebiscite,” Mr Di Natale told the Senate.
“Which is it, Prime Minister, which is it?”
For same-sex marriage to be legalised by a referendum a double majority would be required – the majority of states and an overall national majority in order to change the constitution.
A plebiscite would only need a national majority but the government would not be compelled to act on the result.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who supports gay marriage, has been openly critical, saying he would have preferred a free vote.
“It would have meant the matter would be resolved in this Parliament one way or another in a couple of weeks,” he said.
Mr Turnbull said now it would remain a live issue until a plebiscite is held, which may be some time after the next election.
At least one Coalition senator has already signalled he’s prepared to cross to floor on the issue.
Mr Abbott told Parliament members of his government who do not hold a frontbench position are not bound to the party position.
“Backbench members of the Coalition always have a conscience vote,” he said.
Labor MP Tim Watts delivers emotional speech in Parliament
Labor MP Tim Watts has delivered an emotional speech in Parliament directed at Government frontbencher Eric Abetz, who is opposed to same-sex marriage.
Senator Abetz raised the example of former gay couple Dolce and Gabbana in Tuesday’s party room discussions, though the Tasmanian Senator denies reports the example was used to suggest same-sex couples do not want to marry.
Mr Watts made reference to his uncle’s gay partner Derek who died after contracting AIDS.
“It’s a horrific thing to watch someone die from AIDS,” he said.
“It’s particularly horrific in the Queensland of the 1980s and 90s, to have to do so not only with the horrors of the illness but the indignities and horrors of a lack of recognition from the society around you.
“To have to deal with being beaten by hateful thugs in the street while your body was destroying itself from the inside.”
Mr Watts said his own family took a journey from “ignorance and hate to understanding and love” in accepting the relationship.
“People like Senator Abetz and the Prime Minister are rightly viewed as anachronistic jokes on this issue by the majority of Australians,” Mr Watts said.
“The absurd references to Dolce and Gabbana in yesterday’s Coalition party room will reinforce this.”
Senator Abetz released a statement earlier on Wednesday saying his point was that “not all members of the gay community have the same view” on legalising same-sex marriage.