A pledge by Attorney-General George Brandis to hold a vote on same-sex marriage before the end of the year has been undermined within hours by the Prime Minister.
Mr Brandis revealed the timing for a vote on Sky News, saying he believed the plebiscite would be carried, meaning that if the public voted yes, Parliament would follow.
But when asked to confirm the timeline, the PM failed to support Mr Brandis’ comments. A spokeswoman said it would be held “as early as possible after the election” but could not say whether that would be by the end of the year.
On Monday morning, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus urged the Turnbull government to scrap its plan for a “wasteful and divisive” plebiscite on same-sex marriage.
“They need to get their stories straight but most of all, Mr Turnbull should be dropping this wasteful and very divisive plebiscite,” Mr Dreyfus told ABC radio.
“Let parliamentarians do the job we are meant to do, which is pass laws, to legislate.
“ By contrast, a Labor government would have a bill to legalise same-sex marriage before parliament within 100 days of the election.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was swift to highlight the apparent disagreement, saying the incident showed the chaos and division within the government.
“This is a new land speed record for a broken promise, made over breakfast and gone before dinner,” Mr Shorten said in a statement on Sunday.
“If his own attorney-general can’t rely on Malcolm Turnbull, how can Australians?”
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has told a parliamentary inquiry it would need 29 weeks to plan a plebiscite, meaning holding one this year would likely require an early election.
Matter of conscience
Speaking on Sky News, Mr Brandis said it would be understandable if some politicians maintained their stance against the change.
“I’ve said in the party room when this matter was discussed last August that I thought this was a conscience matter and I haven’t changed my mind,” he said.
“[But] I think it would be perfectly understandable why a member of Parliament representing a conserve electorate and having conservative views themselves might choose to vote no. And I don’t have a problem with that.”
Labor has pledged to call for a vote on same-sex marriage within 100 days if elected, but Mr Brandis said he was not concerned about the commitment.
Mr Brandis said the question would be made public ahead of the plebiscite, but would not confirm if it would be spelt out ahead of the election campaign.
He said that personally, he was in favour of same-sex marriage.
“This is a position I’ve come to over the years and after a lot of reflection,” he said.
“I believe that marriage is one of the fundamental institutions of society and I think it’s important the fundamental institutions of society reflect the fundamental values of society.
“Treating gay people equally is, I think, one of the fundamental values of modern, Australian society.”
Anger within the Liberal Party
Conservative members of the Liberal Party were quick to play down the need for a plebiscite so early into the government’s next term, and were angry that Mr Brandis had not consulted with the party.
These included Senator Eric Abetz, who said he had been “surprised” by the announcement, and was looking forward to “being told the detail”.
Mr Abetz said the shock announcement also raised speculation about the government’s plans to hold an early double dissolution election.
“If we were to have a plebiscite before the end of the year and you were to reverse engineer that it would make interesting speculation about the timing of an election,” he told The Australian.
Fellow Liberal MP Craig Kelly said an early plebiscite would take the focus away from more important issues such as economic policy.
“The concern that I would have is that this means straight after an election the debate is focusing on the same-sex marriage plebiscite rather than the hard economic decisions needed for the country,” Mr Kelly said.
Mr Shorten said the Coalition could settle the issue with a vote in Parliament during the next sitting period.
“Our objections to the plebiscite aren’t just that it’s a delaying tactic designed by the opponents to marriage equality,” he said.
“The Liberal Party said that they’re not going to be bound by the result … it’s just a very expensive opinion poll.”
– with reporting by Rose Donohoe
-with reporting by Rose Donohoe, ABC, AAP