Momentum is building inside the federal Liberal Party for a push on same-sex marriage when Parliament resumes next week, creating the potential for an explosive brawl.
To the alarm of conservatives, three gay Liberal MPs called on Monday for the issue to be resolved quickly by a parliamentary vote and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull appeared to soften his previous stance against any attempt to pass a private member’s bill by crossing the floor.
He cited Liberal Party philosophy so often used by conservatives when they wish to break ranks.
“In our party, backbenchers have always had the right to cross the floor. In the Labor Party, you get expelled for doing that,” Mr Turnbull said.
“It’s always been a fundamental principle in the Liberal Party and indeed, the National Party. So it’s a very different political culture to the very authoritarian Labor Party.”
It is understood the issue will be raised in the party room on Tuesday with an attempt to force a vote in coming weeks. Such a move has the potential to blow apart the government and put further strain on Mr Turnbull’s leadership.
The Coalition policy is there be no parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage without a plebiscite first. A plebiscite was scheduled for February this year but the Senate blocked it.
Subsequently, Mr Turnbull and his predecessor Tony Abbott have both argued the government cannot put the matter to a parliamentary vote in which the Liberals would be given a free vote this term because it would break an election promise.
Any policy change adopted by the party room must be first be put to the people at the next election. Most Liberal conservatives and the National Party vehemently oppose any move before the election and the Nationals say it is forbidden under the Coalition agreement signed between Barnaby Joyce and Mr Turnbull.
But MP Tim Wilson told Sky News he had never seen the agreement and as far as he was concerned the party had discharged its responsibility towards a plebiscite.
“When it comes down to it, it’s in the best interests of the country for this issue to be resolved,” he said.
“When you look at my party I think it’s in our best interests to move on from this issue so we can focus on the things that I think people voted for me and for my party to deal with: tax reform, fixing the budget, national security, making sure that we stop terrorism, and then obviously I have my own personal view.”
Similar arguments were made on Monday by Liberal MP Trevor Evans and WA Liberal senator Dean Smith, the latter of whom wrote in The Australian Financial Review that it would be “political suicide” for the government to go to the election without resolving the issue.
In a sign of how hard any move before the election will be resisted, conservative NSW Liberal MP Craig Kelly said it would amount to a broken election promise.
“These people will be responsible for breaking a government election commitment and we all would pay the penalty,” he said. “We have to stick to that commitment in this term of government.”
The Nationals have previously warned that any move before the election could split the Coalition.
The proponents received extra support from Victorian Liberal MP Jason Wood, who agreed the plebiscite option had been exhausted and if the bill was put to the House, he would vote for it.
Mr Wood told Guardian Australia others in the party were of the same view.
“I have no doubt that a number of other members will look at this as an open debate – I think that would be the view of a number of members,” Mr Wood said.
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