POLITICS

'In With A Shot,' The Liberal Hopes That Same-Sex Marriage Won't Go Postal

But the party appears headed to reaffirm a barely wanted plebiscite.

07/08/2017 7:06 AM AEST | Updated 07/08/2017 10:27 AM AEST

CANBERRA -- For various reasons, most in the Liberal Party don't want to talk about same-sex marriage. But on Monday, at a special party room meeting, they will thrash it out until the Turnbull Government's position for this term of parliament is either reaffirmed or turned around.

Well, that's what is expected in this fight over equality which has turned into a leadership issue and battle of wills within the various warring tribes in the governing party.

"Quite frankly, I am over it," long-time marriage equality supporter within the Liberal Party, Warren Entsch told HuffPost Australia.

"I think the majority of Australians are over it. They just want the bloody thing to go away."

The veteran northern Queensland MP wants a civil, respectful debate in the party room on Monday, as "we are talking about people's lives".

"Whether it affects you or not, there are people that it does affect. And there are people who are quite emotional about this," he said.

"When you make derogatory comments about this, people feel belittled. They feel a lesser person by it."

One senator, Dean Smith, and five lower house MPs Entsch, Trevor Evans, Trent Zimmerman, Tim Wilson and Jason Woods have all publicly called for a free vote, insisting the Government's election commitment to hold a plebiscite has long expired. Smith has drafted a private member's bill with wide religious exemptions in a serious and generous bid to get wavering colleagues across the line.

Still rejecting more than a week of anonymous and public political threats, Entsch believes the so-called rebels are "in with a shot," but nothing is certain, despite many opinion polls in favour of same-sex marriage and a free vote in parliament.

Even today, as Liberal MPs and Senators walk into parliament for the emergency meeting, Fairfax is reporting research by ReachTEL for the Australia Institute which has found voters in seven key seats think their federal representatives should just get on with it.

"We are in with a shot. It depends on whether people are going to go in there and genuinely try and find a solution or whether they are just going to go in there just try and drag the process through," Entsch said.

"I hope so."

Entsch describes three groups on this issue; those for a free vote, those against same-sex marriage who are "obsessively" trying to wreck the process and a larger group that is supporting the plebiscite and same-sex marriage, but need the "cover" of a public yes vote.

The election promise to hold a $170 million public vote is being grasped very firmly by government MPs and senators including Prime Minister Malcolm, even though he personally supports a free or conscience vote and Australia finally losing the tag of being the last Western, English-speaking democracy that doesn't allow same-sex couples to marry.

"This is an issue that is never going to go away until it is resolved," Entsch said. "Until there is a vote in the parliament.

"A vote in the parliament will, one way or other, put this issue away for this term.

"I am optimistic. I have come into this with the hope that we can put this bloody thing to bed once and for all."

And the Liberal behind the "most comprehensive" private member's bill on same-sex marriage, Senator Smith has even applauded those, including, Cabinet Minister Peter Dutton, who are agitating for a legally questionable postal plebiscite, although he's agreed with a proposition on Sydney radio 2GB on Sunday night that such a popular vote, by post, would be "silly".

"To be fair, the fact that we are talking about alternatives to the plebiscite is to be applauded," Smith said. "The work that Peter Dutton and others are doing to try and find a solution is to be applauded."

But, opponents say plebiscites, postal or otherwise, are non-binding, non-representative, wasteful and potentially hurtful to young gays and lesbians. Smith, a fervent Liberal traditionalist, adds that plebiscites are not in the true Menzian, Howard tradition of the Liberal Party of letting party members exercise their individual vote.

"The legal risks around a postal plebiscite are real," Smith told 2GB. "We could expend up to $100 million, if that is the cost, on conducting a postal plebiscite only to have the results challenged in the courts."

"But importantly, what about if Australia Post is not delivering to your home? And this is important for regional people, for people in regional NSW and Western Australia.

"What are we doing to make sure young Australians who are travelling abroad enjoying a gap year, having a holiday, how are we ensuing that they can participate in the ballot? We know know many young people don't enrol till the eve of an election. What are we going to do to ensure young people can participate.

"What a waste of money. What a waste of time."

Smith is right that that constitutionality of a postal plebiscite is yet to be tested. Supporters, including Dutton, have proposed it as a way to get around the need for legislation to fund it. Legislation failing in a hostile senate was the very thing that caused the original plebiscite proposal to fail.

But, marriage equality campaigners are looking into whether a postal plebiscite also requires an appropriations bill to fund it. If it did, it would make a postal plebiscite unconstitutional without such a bill passing both houses of parliament.

It's understood the Turnbull Government is seeking legal advice on holding a postal plebiscite.

Warren Entsch suspects there would a "30 to 40 per cent participation" for a postal vote, and the extremes of both sides would be "fired up".

"They are both as bad as one another," he tells HuffPost Australia. "They will start the personal attacks and the abuse cause they obviously don't have the capacity to argue the issue."

"And that is very hurtful for people that are directly affected by it."

Smith released his private members bill to his party on Sunday, a day ahead of the special Liberal meeting, with a warning that a future Labor bill won't protect religious freedoms as well.

"This is the first time a bill has been developed that protects the religious views of ministers of religion, Australian Defence Force chaplains and it creates a new class of religious celebrants," he told 2GB.

"If you are an existing civil celebrant or that you are a minister from a religion from a non-recognised denomination, those smaller emerging churches in our community, then your religious views in regards to marriage will be protected."

"This is the most comprehensive marriage bill we have seen in the parliament for a long time. We have 15 to 16 marriage bills in the past."

But he insists - and he is speaking here directly to conservatives - this is not something a future Labor government will do when tackling this issue, saying "this is the best way to have same-sex marriage in Australia with religious protections."

"People need to be aware, if Labor is elected, there will not be a bill like this."

If the postal plebiscite gets up, then according to Entsch, the fight will go on.

He's told HuffPost Australia has can't understand why this contentious issue has to be taken to the public, while the issues of abortion (RU-486), euthanasia and capital punishment have not.

"RU-486, why did that not go to a postal plebiscite?" he posed. "What would be more emotionally charged that the abortion debate?"

"There are double standards here in many ways. You argue about the consistency."

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