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The Turnbull government is going to push for another senate vote on a same-sex marriage plebiscite

Photo: Christopher Jue/ Getty Images.

The stalemate over marriage equality looks set to continue in Australia until at least the end of 2017 after a special meeting of the Liberal Party room to debate the issue decided to try to obtain parliamentary approval for a national compulsory plebiscite once again.

The party has been split between those who favour of same-sex marriage and hardline conservatives against it, while others have sought to find middle-ground in order to end the long-running debate which has distracted the government from its economic agenda.

Liberal MPs met in Canberra for two hours this afternoon after prime minister Malcolm Turnbull called an extraordinary meeting to debate the issue, which has come to the surface again via a private private members’ bill from a group of Coalition MPs, led by WA senator Dean Smith for a parliamentary “free” vote on the issue.

But following the two-hour meeting, the Liberals decided overwhelmingly to maintain their policy position of a plebiscite. Only six MPs backed the move to a free vote: Trevor Evans, Jason Wood, Tim Wilson, John Alexander, Warren Entsch and Trent Zimmerman.

Under the government’s existing proposal, if the majority of Australian’s voted in favour of same-sex marriage, it would then move to a free vote in parliament.

Labor backed the private member’s bill as “an acceptable compromise” after caucus met to discuss the issue earlier today.

Cabinet also met earlier in the day and went into the party room meeting with a three-step plan, starting with the plebiscite once again. If that fails to gain majority support in parliament – the Senate blocked the government’s plebiscite election promise in October last year in a 33-29 vote – the next step would be a postal vote, an idea put forward by immigration minister Peter Dutton.

The postal vote would not be compulsory and would not require parliamentary approval.

Lobby group Australian Marriage Equality has already threatened a legal challenge if the postal vote plan, which is expected to cost taxpayers up to $40 million, goes ahead.

If both of those ideas fail, the Cabinet’s Plan C is free vote by the end of the year, but speaking after the decision today, finance minister Mathias Cormann said whether than would go ahead would be considered by the joint party room in a meeting on Tuesday.

“The government is committed to keep faith with the promise we made at the last election,” he said.

Senator Cormann said was not up to the Senate to decision if they preferred to back a compulsory plebiscite or the optional postal vote.

“If there are concerns about the voluntary postal plebiscite then I would encourage those senators who are so concerned to consider supporting the government’s bill,” he said.

Cormann says the plebiscite legislation is likely to return to the Senate this week.

Australian Marriage Equality co-chair Alex Greenwich called the plebiscite a failed policy and the postal vote flawed.

“The government has yet again decided to delay, drag on and disappoint people with their decision today,” he said.

“They had the opportunity to resolve this matter through a vote in parliament and they said ‘no’, we’re going to drag this out.”

Opposition leader Bill Shorten called the government’s decision “ridiculous”.

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