Prime Minister Tony Abbott has told his joint party room that ministers have been “read the riot act” for having public spats in the wake of last week’s messy gay marriage debate.
On Monday night Cabinet agreed to hold a popular vote on the issue after the next election, but members of the frontbench are publicly divided over whether the mechanism should be a constitutional referendum or plebiscite.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull argued the vote should take place in this term of parliament so it is off the agenda before the next election.
The Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne, has also accused the Prime Minister of “branch stacking” by including the mostly conservative Nationals in last week’s marathon debate that endorsed a binding vote against same-sex marriage in this term.
Admitting it had been a scrappy fortnight for the Government, Mr Abbott told the joint-party room meeting on Tuesday morning that ministers had been warned there “would be consequences” for any who did not maintain discipline in future.
His warning came as one backbencher castigated her Cabinet colleagues for their behaviour.
The Member for Gilmore, Ann Sudmalis, spent five minutes berating ministers for what she saw as the debacle after the same-sex marriage debate last week.
She said Cabinet ministers were sacrificing people in marginal seats for the luxury of expressing their own views in public, and called for “unity”.
When she sat down she was cheered by other backbenchers.
The comments were seen as being out of character for Ms Sudmalis, who does not often speak at the party room meetings.
“I didn’t take on this position to see my country’s future frittered away,” Ms Sudmalis told ABC local radio after the meeting.
“I just added some perspective on it from a marginal seat holder, saying that we’ve got a great message to take forward.
“We are actually doing the country good and that message has been lost and we need to work together.”
Julie Bishop warns public divisions could play into by-election
Several Liberals say during the meeting Foreign Minister Julie Bishop urged her colleagues to think about how their actions could impact on the upcoming by-election in the Western Australian seat of Canning.
One told the ABC “the message was clear, before you open your mouth think how this might play in a campaign”.
Another said the deputy Liberal leader was “making the point [that] how we fare in Canning will have implications for how the government is judged by the media and the community”.
Agriculture Minister and Deputy Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce said the Government had found a resolution.
“The party room guided by the Prime Minister has drawn a line under this issue,” he told ABC’s Capital Hill program.
“So the issue, therefore, is dealt with, we will not be changing policy during this term of government.
“Whether it’s a plebiscite or a referendum, that will be discussed in the future.”
Mr Abbott has said he will provide more details of the mechanism for a popular vote within weeks.