PRIME minister Tony Abbott said yesterday that Australians would get a chance to vote on legalising gay marriage if they re-elect his government next year – a promise his opponents argue is a stalling tactic to sideline the divisive issue ahead of the general election.
Mr Abbott’s ruling conservative coalition all but doomed legislation that would allow gay marriage by refusing to allow members of parliament a free vote on the issue.
Coalition MPs voted at a meeting on Tuesday night saying members had to follow the party line that marriage should be lawful only between a man and a woman.
The outcome is a victory for Mr Abbott, a former Roman Catholic seminarian who has been described as Australia’s most socially conservative prime minister in decades. However, a vote on the legislation could damage his leadership if MPs from the government benches broke ranks to support gay marriage.
Mr Abbott extended an olive branch to marriage equality advocates, offering to allow the public to vote on gay marriage in a plebiscite if his government retains power at the next election. Currently the coalition trails the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls.
“The only way to successfully and satisfactorily settle this matter, given that it is so personal and given that so many people have strong feelings on either side of this – the only way to settle it with the least rancour, if you like, is to ask the people to make a choice,” Mr Abbott said.
“That means that going into the next election, you’ll have the Labour Party which wants it to go to a parliamentary vote and you’ve got the coalition that wants it to go to a people’s vote,” he said.
Mr Abbott has changed his position since May when he ruled out an Australian popular vote after a referendum in Ireland in which 62 per cent of voters called for the Irish constitution to be changed to allow same-sex marriage.
Despite the ruling party decision, one government MP, backbencher Warren Entsch, plans to introduce a private member’s bill to parliament on Monday that would allow same-sex marriage.
But Mr Entsch and other supporters concede that any bill will fail because government MPs will not be allowed to vote freely.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten, who introduced a same-sex marriage bill in June, has not given up hope that the parliament will legalise gay marriage before the next election.
“When it comes time, if he gets re-elected at the next election, you can forget about marriage equality,” Mr Shorten said. “The choice in this country is you either have Mr Abbott or you have marriage equality. But you can’t have both.”
Some members of the ruling Liberal Party are angry that Mr Abbott allowed their junior coalition partners, the Nationals – a more conservative, rural-based party – to take part in the decision over gay marriage.
Senior ministers Malcom Turnbull and Chris Pyne had argued for a free vote.