The Australian Financial Review reports…
“Tony Abbott and his fellow conservatives have crushed attempts to grant the Coalition a conscience vote on gay marriage, but the Prime Minister’s handling of the matter has left his party bitterly divided and his own leadership further diminished.
In a bid to assuage the anger, the Prime Minster promised late Tuesday night to either allow a free vote in the next term of Parliament or, as he preferred, put the matter to either a referendum or a plebiscite.
“We will put it to the people,” he said.
Mr Abbott, whose initial aim was to not even allow MPs and senators to discuss the policy, was forced to hold a special meeting starting on Tuesday afternoon after Liberals on both sides of the issue demanded during a meeting earlier in the day that the air be cleared.
The push for change was defeated by 66 votes to 33 following a six-hour, marathon debate of Liberals and Nationals and effectively ends any chance of gay marriage being legislated during this term of Parliament. But it was much closer between Liberals. Of the 79 Liberals who spoke, 33 wanted a free vote.
Mr Abbott, in league with the Liberal conservatives who oppose change, ensured the Nationals MPs and senators also attended the special afternoon meeting. Only three of the 21 Nationals support gay marriage and their presence swayed the numbers heavily against allowing a conscience vote.
There were bitter fights between Minsters. Eric Abetz and Michaelia Cash said ministers who supported gay marriage should resign their positions. Senator Abetz contended that gay men didn’t really want to get married and pointed out that Italian fashion designers Dolce & Gabbana never wed.
Malcolm Turnbull, whose leadership was destroyed in 2009 when Tony Abbott and others resigned on him to protest his support for a carbon price, lashed back, saying it was “a good idea to keep the team together” given the Coalition’s poor standing in the polls.
Mr Turnbull said Cabinet should have discussed the issue first while Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the refusal to change policy to a conscience vote flew in the face of the spirit of the party’s founder, Robert Menzies.
Julie Bishop said the party should have been debating climate change, not gay marriage. She and Joe Hockey backed a referendum on gay marriage after the next election.
Christopher Pyne, George Brandis, Marise Payne, Michael Keenan and Simon Birmingham were also among 16 ministers who spoke in favour. Another 14 spoke against, including Scott Morrison.
While he has shored up support among the conservatives, Mr Abbott’s enlisting of the Nationals infuriated other Liberals. At a routine meeting of the Liberal Party at 9am, at which Mr Abbott signalled his intention to enlist the Nationals, one of his most senior ministers, Christopher Pyne, accused the prime minster of “branch stacking” to effect an outcome.
Mr Abbott said Mr Pyne and others they had no grounds for complaint because Mr Abbott had said before the election that if there were to be a debate, it would be in the “Coalition party room”, not the Liberal party room.
“What I said pre-election was, if this matter were to come up in the next Parliament, it would be dealt with by the Coalition party room in the usual way,” he said.
“I couldn’t be clearer.”
Mr Abbott said had the party started from scratch, he would have granted a free vote but it went to the last election promising to vote against gay marriage “and a lot of people who voted for us were going to feel dudded.”
“There’s no easy answer here. It doesn’t matter what we did today, some people would be disappointed,” he said.
Labor leader Bill Shorten, who has promised legislation in the first 100 days if elected, said only a Labor government could now deliver gay marriage.
While Mr Abbott succeeded in defeating the push, his tactics on Tuesday further alienated colleagues who are already starting to grumble again about his leadership, prompted by the Bronwyn Bishop expense scandal and an entrenched deficit in the polls.
The defeat of the conscience vote means Liberal MPs and senators remain bound to vote against a bill that will be tabled next week by Queensland Liberal Warren Entsch and seconded by Labor’s Terri Butler.
At least six MPs are threatening to cross the floor should the bill come up for debate. It will be introduced on Monday and a disappointed Mr Entsch said it faced certain defeat.
Any minister who crossed the floor would be forced to resign from the frontbench.
By aligning himself firmly with the conservatives and the Nationals against what is now majority public support for marriage equality, Mr Abbott has broadened the issue within the parliamentary Liberal Party to one about basic Liberal rights.
The issue first flared in a routine meeting of the Liberals at 9am on Tuesday. Mr Entsch, who had met Mr Abbott on Monday to discuss the issue, ambushed the Prime Minister at the meeting by demanding there be a debate and giving notice he would be tabling the bill.
A spirited argument ensued. Mr Abbott told a subsequent 9.30am routine meeting of Coalition MPs and senators that he agreed the issue should be sorted and he scheduled the 3.15pm meeting.
Deputy leader Julie Bishop intervened in the debate by arguing that there should not be any distraction from “bread and butter” issues ahead of the Canning by-election, an intervention that angered many of her colleagues.
Tasmanian MP Brett Whitely, who opposes gay marriage, used the morning meeting to urge Mr Abbott to allow the debate so the matter could be dispensed with.
One described the Liberal Party meeting in the morning as a “shambles”, arguing that if Mr Abbott had “come in and said as a Liberal Party we should have a free vote”, that would have been accepted as a proper assertion of the way the party works.
“By looking as if he’s trying to avoid the vote he looks like he is both trying to stifle the debate and impose his own will on the party, instead of consulting as he promised,” a source said.
The move was seen as further eroding his standing with the party. The fact that Mr Abbott’s candidate for Speaker of the House of Representatives did not succeed in Monday’s ballot was seen as another indication of his weakening authority in the parliamentary party.
One MP said “things are getting much worse”, with fractures developing not just with the backbench but repeatedly now with the frontbench too.
“He’s digging in, just stubbornly insisting on his positions, despite everything,” the MP said. “There is widespread exasperation with what is now happening.”
Mr Abbott drew fire from his gay sister, Christine Forster, who took to Twitter as the party debate raged. “Hoping the @LiberalAus party room is true to its liberal roots & allows MPs a free vote on this issue of #equality before the law,” she tweeted.”