Tony Abbott said he 'had to make a call' on marriage equality and it's a 'good' one

Prime Minister Tony Abbott during House of Representatives question time at Parliament House in Canberra. Photo: Stefan Postles/ Getty.

The Coalition’s six-hour meeting to debate a conscience vote on same-sex marriage ended in two thirds of the joint party room choosing to prevent MPs to have a free vote on the issue.

The defeat of the conscience vote means Liberal and Nationals MPs and senators remain bound to Coalition policy, which opposes same-sex marriage, and are expected to vote along party lines against a private members bill set to be tabled by Queensland Liberal Warren Entsch on Monday.

At least six MPs are threatening to cross the floor should the bill come up for debate.

While the party allows the freedom for backbenchers to vote against party policy, any minister who crossed the floor would be expected to resign from the frontbench.

On ABC radio this morning Abbott said the “free-flowing debate” last night “was entirely in keeping with our pre-election commitment”.

The PM said around half of those in favour of a free vote would have ultimately voted to keep the status quo in parliament. Around 90 people spoke, including 30 frontbenchers, a majority of whom supported a free vote.

“I am confident that this government is doing exactly what we said we would do… focus on jobs, growth and community safety.

“I am the leader, I had to make a call, and I think this has been a good call.”

Many are saying that the result was a tactical manoeuvre by Abbott, who opposes the plan, to ensure his view would prevail.

“I accept that there is some disappointment, but we’ve got to do what we can to keep faith with the public,” he said. “It has been our clear policy for more than a decade that marriage is between a man and a women.

“Our position going into the next election should be that in a subsequent term of Parliament this is a matter that should rightly be put to the Australian people.

“There is the prospect of change in the next term of parliament if that is the will of the Australian people.

“This is an important subject, it is a very personal subject… the best way of resolving this if we are to change, given same-sex marriage is something that only very recently has come into our intellectual and cultural parameters…

“Before then people didn’t think of it,” he said suggesting that his homosexual friends at university would never have considered getting married.

When asked what he thought about Entsch’s bill, he said: “Let’s see where things will go, we don’t know what the bill provides.

“We’ve got to see the bill first and wait for the dust to settle from yesterday.”

The prime minister floated the idea of putting the proposed change to a public vote via a plebiscite, where a question can be carried by a simple majority, or a referendum-style vote which would set the far higher bar of needing to be carried by a majority of people in a majority of states.

There is no Constitutional requirement for a vote on gay marriage to be a referendum. In 2004, the then-Howard government changed the definition of marriage to “between a man and a woman” in response to a growing push for marriage equality.

The Prime Minister’s handling of yesterday’s events has been criticised by many as “messy” with one senior Liberal telling the ABC that it was “madness”.

“I have never seen anything as mad as this,” they said. “They were literally making it up as they went along.”

Also speaking to ABC radio, federal treasurer Joe Hockey stood by Abbott’s earlier comments and reiterated that the joint party room maintained their party’s policy in deciding that marriage was to stay with man and woman.

“This is the last parliament where the Coalition is bound by policy, after the next election there is the option for people to have a free vote, a plebiscite or referendum,” he said adding that by the next election his party will recognise one of the three options.

“The next election has to be about much the broader interests to Australian people.

“It is certainly an issue for many people…but the next election will be about the plan for the next three years… and that will include a policy about same-sex marriage.”

Host Fran Kelly asked if the move is a sign that the Liberal government has become more conservative.

“Not at all,” Hockey replied. “No-one in party room was bullied by unions or someone else to express a view.

“It was a powerful and successful joint party room meeting where people said what they really felt.

“There is party room policy and there is a process… that is, if there is a matter of conscience then there is a free vote… in 2004 this went from a conscience vote to defining it in legislation.”

Hockey said he expected MPs to rally around the decision made last night.

“[People] are entitled to cross the floor… but if you’re a frontbencher you are expected to stick with party policy,” he said.

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