The Liberal senator who drafted his own marriage equality bill says an emergency meeting to resolve a stand-off on the issue should not be seen as a vote on Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.
West Australian Dean Smith is one of a handful of Liberals pushing for a parliamentary vote on marriage equality, saying it must be legislated as soon as possible.
But the conservative wing of the party believes the Prime Minister must maintain an commitment to a plebiscite, despite Labor and crossbench members vowing to block it again.
That has prompted some — including conservative Immigration Minster Peter Dutton — to suggest a postal plebiscite as a compromise.
Federal Parliament will not return from a long winter break until Tuesday, but Mr Turnbull has recalled his party for a special meeting to end the impasse on Monday.
Senator Smith says he would argue as “vigorously” as he could for a free vote, describing his own bill as the most comprehensive same-sex marriage bill to be presented to Parliament.
He told Insiders that it would include exemptions for religious figures and celebrants who feared they may be sued if they refused to marry gay couples or take part in ceremonies.
The bill would create a new category of religious marriage celebrant that can object to marrying a gay couple.
That exemption is based on the findings from a Senate committee last year, which considered what form a same-sex marriage bill should take.
“None of the other bills that have before the Parliament — and we have had more than 15 of them — have comprehensively dealt with the issue of religious freedoms or religious protections,” he said.
“I will be arguing the parliamentary free vote option as I think that is most consistent with our traditions but more importantly, there is an electoral advantage as it deals with this quickly by the parliament and is settled for all.”
Liberal MP frustrated by plebiscite argument
Liberal backbencher Trent Zimmerman, who has indicated he may cross the floor to allow a debate on the bill, said he was frustrated by some conservative colleagues.
“There is some frustration on my part and I think of others as well that there is some who argue we should stick with the plebiscite, but then in same breath say they wouldn’t vote for marriage equality if that is what the plebiscite delivered,” he told Sky News.
“There is some inconsistency in that argument.”
If the Liberal Party leadership does not agree to a parliamentary vote, then Labor could force a vote by suspending standing orders and pressuring some Liberal MPs to vote against their ranks.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott is one conservative figure who has criticised those calling for a free vote, saying they would be betraying voters.
“Every single one of them was happy enough to say to the people at the last election elect me and you will get a say — for them to cross the floor to try and ensure the Parliament does it that is a real breach of faith with the public,” Mr Abbott told Sydney radio station 2GB last week.
Senator Smith said it was important for the “moral authority” of the bill for it to be presented in the House of Representatives before the Upper House.
Leadership talk is a distraction: Smith
Despite the tensions, Senator Smith said the meeting must not be seen as a vote on Mr Turnbull’s leadership of the party, insisting speculation was distracting.
“The Liberal Party and indeed the Coalition is bigger than same-sex marriage — this will not be the only difficult issue that comes across the party room’s desk over the next six to 12 months,” he said.
“Every difficult issue does not need to be seen through the prism of leadership.”
He said his opinion on marriage equality had changed in recent years.
“I came to the conclusion that there is nothing to fear about same-sex marriage in our country and that the country is overwhelmingly ready for Parliament to legislate for same-sex marriage,” he said.