Liberals MPs who can’t in good conscience support same-sex marriage won’t be bound by the result of a plebiscite, a senior minister in favour of the law change says.
Dumped cabinet minister Eric Abetz has triggered a debate within the coalition over the importance of a plebiscite to be held in the next term of government if the coalition is re-elected.
Senator Abetz, who opposes changing the Marriage Act, believes it would be up to each member of parliament to decide whether a plebiscite reflected the view of the people.
“I would need to determine whether (the plebiscite) really is an accurate reflection, whether it is all above board or whether the question is stacked, whether all sides received public funding,” he told The Guardian Australia website.
His view is at odds with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who told parliament in October the government would abide by the people’s verdict.
“When the Australian people make their decision, that decision will stick,” he said.
“It will be decisive. It will be respected by this government and by this parliament and this nation.”
However, Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos – who supports same-sex marriage – said it was the party’s long-standing position to respect the right of members to vote as they see fit.
“This is the Liberal party and we’ve always taken the view we respect peoples’ individual consciences – we don’t try and regiment everybody,” he told Sky News on Wednesday.
“But I think we owe it to the public to have a sincere process in which we consult them and respect the outcome of that process.”
He said the cabinet and party room had not yet formally discussed the issue.
Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss believes a decision by the people will be very hard for MPs to ignore.
“In reality, when people have spoken by way of a referendum, that will be a very powerful argument, I think, in the minds of members of parliament,” he told reporters in Adelaide.
Liberal MP Warren Entsch, an advocate for same-sex marriage, described Senator Abetz’s comments as “bizarre” and “extraordinary”.
“It will be a very brave individual – either in the House of Representatives or the Senate – who seeks to challenge the views of the Australian people,” he told Fairfax Media.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said Senator Abetz has made a joke of the government’s promise to let voters decide.
“Eric Abetz has let the cat out of the bag, admitting the Liberals are not planning to take any notice of the expressed will of the Australian people,” he said.
“This absurd notion makes a complete joke of our democratic process and renders a $160 million national plebiscite totally pointless.”
Mr Turnbull agreed to honour a promise by his predecessor Tony Abbott to hold a plebiscite after the next election, due later this year.
The former prime minister had made the pledge after a marathon party-room meeting last August.
Labor has promised to introduce legislation for marriage equality within its first 100 days of winning government.
Cabinet minister Michaelia Cash said any Liberal MP that doesn’t genuinely agree with the plebiscite result and cannot support it “in good conscience” would have to publicly detail why.
“They will need to explain that to the Australian people,” she told ABC’s Radio National.
The West Australian senator, who opposes same-sex marriage, said she would respect the will of the Australian people whatever they decide.