The Liberal party is struggling to find a way through what has become a major crisis over same-sex marriage, jamming Malcolm Turnbull between hardline conservatives and rebels trying to get a parliamentary vote.
The issue is causing agitation in sections of the grassroots, and Queensland Liberal National Party (LNP) president Gary Spence on Tuesday accused MPs – whom he did not name - of defying the membership.
Trevor Evans, who holds the seat of Brisbane and Warren Entsch, from Leichhardt, are among those who may cross the floor to get a vote in parliament. The LNP is particularly exercised about Evans, who has spoken out strongly in a series of interviews this week.
Spence sent a letter to rank and file LNP members. “I am disappointed that views that do not accord with the party’s policy have been aired publicly”, he wrote. The LNP is against any change to the definition of marriage.
“I am equally disappointed that members elected under the LNP banner have chosen to take a position that defies LNP policy and the wishes of the LNP’s membership,” the letter said.
The LNP is pushing hard to get the government to run a postal ballot.
Turnbull - who with the cabinet has been in Western Australia trying to shore up flagging Liberal support in that state - on Tuesday reaffirmed the government’s policy for a plebiscite. Impatiently trying to brush off questions on the issue, he turned on reporters for not focusing on the topic of his news conference.
He said that during two days in WA, meeting hundreds of people, only one had raised the marriage issue with him.
While Turnbull’s leadership is not under any present threat, the marriage row has seen critics floating speculation about the risk to him if he can’t contain the revolt. There have also been suggestions the rebels could face threats to their preselections.
Apart from Evans and Entsch, Tim Wilson, Trent Zimmerman and Senator Dean Smith – who has a private member’s bill - are pressing for the question to be settled in parliament. If the four lower house members crossed the floor, a parliamentary vote could be brought on.
With the battle set to erupt in the Liberal party room next week, conservative Senator Eric Abetz warned the rebel backbenchers that crossing the floor to allow a vote would have dire implications.
“If a government loses a procedural vote on the floor of the house because certain members deliberately vote with the Labor party and the Greens, that would be an exceptionally grave matter”, he told Sky. “Because what it would tell the Australian people is that the government has lost its authority, has lost control on the floor of the house.”
While a postal ballot – which, unlike a plebiscite, doesn’t require Senate approval - has support among conservatives including Abetz, it is opposed by those in favour of marriage equality, and would lead to fresh controversy. Moreover, Abetz and some other conservatives would not regard themselves as bound by the result.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who has advocated a postal ballot, urged silence from those who have been speaking out.
“I know people have got strong views either side”, he said. “I accept the passion of this issue, but it needs to be dealt with behind closed doors. And I think now is the time for people .. having had their say frankly, to contain their comments until they get back to the party room.”
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra