The Coalition's pledge on a same-sex marriage plebiscite is starting to look really messy

Photo: Charles McQuillan/ Getty Images.

Whether same sex marriage in Australia will be legalised, even if a majority of the public vote for it, remains unclear after prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said today that Coalition MPs will be free to vote with their conscience, despite the result.

Attempting to address growing confusion over the government’s plan, the prime minister said that if he’s re-elected he wants to hold the plebiscite before the end of 2016 and make it compulsory for all Australians to vote.

If a majority votes yes, then “it will sail through the Parliament, believe me,” Turnbull said.

“All of us who live in the real world of real practical politics know that if the Australian people speak in favour of same-sex marriage in the plebiscite, it will be legislated,” he said.

But the PM raised the spectre of the plebiscite being like a referendum, which requires a majority of states to vote yes for it to succeed. A spokesman for the PM later clarified that a simple majority of the national vote would be sufficient.

“There are a number of details to work out, but it will be as close as possible to the mechanism for a referendum, because again, that’s appropriate, it’s fair, it’s well accepted, it’s standard sort of procedure,” he said.

Both the yes and no cases will receive equal funding from taxpayers.

But the lack of details on the plebiscite going into Saturday’s general election has created uncertainly about the issue on both sides of politics and if it’s successful, the prime minister won’t be asking Coalition MPs to vote yes on the issue too. Cabinet solidarity – a normally critical part of government leadership – will not apply.

“In our party, it will be a free vote. So how members respond to the plebiscite is a matter for them,” he said.

His comments come after treasurer Scott Morrison repeatedly refused to clarify how he’d vote during an interview on ABC TV’s 7.30 last night.

He told host Leigh Sales that he would “respect the outcome of the plebiscite”.

“If it passes then the legislation will pass,” Morrison said.

Another senior cabinet member, foreign minister Julie Bishop, was on Lateline later that evening and said how she votes will depend on a range of factors, including the legislation itself.

She also said she would “respect” the plebiscite.

Lateline host Emma Alberici asked the foreign minister “If the plebiscite does go ahead and the majority of Australians support marriage equality, but your specific electorate votes against same-sex marriage, how will you vote in the Parliament?”

Bishop replied “Well, that will depend on the plebiscite vote overall, how it is broken down and what it looks like, state by state, electorate by electorate and then, of course, it will depend what the legislation looks like.”

The Labor Party has pledged to introduce same-sex marriage legislation within 100 days of forming government if it wins.

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