Tony Abbott offers a clear path to marriage equality for Australia, but it will take a year

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Getty Images

Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott has given a clear indication on how the nation can legalise same-sex marriage, an issue which has his party at odds with community opinion, by the end of next year.

After a six-hour meeting of all his government’s members of parliament to debate the issue, he announced the Coalition’s position in the current term of government would remain that marriage should exclusively be between a man and a woman.

But in an important shift in policy, he added that “there is a way forward now” and that no Coalition MP would be bound to vote in line with the party leadership in the next parliament.

“I’ve come to the view that this is the last term in which the party room can be bound,” he said.

This clears the way for a conscience vote at the end of 2016 that would amend the Marriage Act.

Abbott reiterated several times that the decision to change the national law should be “based on a people’s vote, not on a Parliament’s vote”, and this raises several options.

One is through a referendum, although these are notoriously difficult to pass because of the strict constitutional requirements. Another is through a plebiscite, which would be carried by an overwhelming majority. There’s also the option of going to an election with the Coalition’s guarantee, unexpectedly just delivered by Abbott, that all of its MPs would be allowed a free vote in the next Parliament.

This means that voters would be able to go to the next election knowing that it need not be decided on support for same-sex marriage, as enough members of parliament will vote in support of it regardless of who wins government.

There is overwhelming support among Australian voters for the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Abbott was insistent, however, that he would not change the policy that he took to the country in 2013. “The last thing you should do is dud the people who voted for you,” he said.

A free vote, which Coalition MPs resolved not to allow today because of the policy they took to the last election, would secure the overwhelming majority of Parliamentary support.

The prime minister made the comments after a meeting of his coalition’s party room, in a joint meeting of Liberal and National MPs, resolved against allowing a vote on the floor of Parliament on a conscience basis, a scenario which would effectively guarantee the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

The vote was 66-33 against allowing conservative MPs to vote according to their conscience. The Coalition went to the last election in favour of heterosexual marriage only.

The Coalition’s leading political advice firm, Crosby-Textor, found overwhelming support in the community for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in an extensive survey last year. A record 72% of the population were happy to allow gay and lesbian people to marry.

Queensland Liberal MPs Warren Entsch and Teresa Gambaro are expected to introduce their bill next Monday and it has the support of several Labor MPs with Terry Butler seconding the bill, as well as key independents and the Greens.

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