POLITICS

Liberals Will Stick With Plebiscite Policy, Might Try Postal Vote Option

Emergency party meeting refuses to budge on free vote prospect.

07/08/2017 6:03 PM AEST | Updated 08/08/2017 8:09 AM AEST

CANBERRA -- An emergency meeting failed to budge the government's policy on marriage equality, as the Liberal party room recommitted to getting a plebiscite through the Senate and kept the option of a postal plebiscite in its pocket if necessary.

Despite pressure to support a parliamentary vote from five "renegade" members -- Trent Zimmerman, Trevor Evans, Dean Smith, Warren Entsch and Tim Wilson -- the Liberals decided to stand by their election pledge and require a plebiscite, or public vote, on same sex marriage before a vote in the parliament. The meeting, which required MPs to return to Canberra a day earlier than usual, spent hours debating the way forward but resolved to stick with its existing plebiscite pledge.

The plebiscite legislation will be placed before the Senate again, as early as this week, after being rejected 33-29 back in November. Finance minister and Senate leader Mathias Cormann told a press conference following the meeting that the same defeated legislation would be placed before the Senate again, but if it is again blocked, he claimed the government had a "legal and constitutional" right to call for a postal plebiscite instead.

"Our preference is to do that through a compulsory attendance plebiscite and legislation to that effect. We'll come back before the Senate, we hope, this week," he said.

"If that were to fail, the government believes that we have a legal and constitutional way forward to give the Australian people a say on whether or not the definition of marriage should be changed through a non-legislated, voluntary postal plebiscite."

Cormann said the plebiscite would be compulsory, the postal plebiscite would be voluntary, and also revealed that if a plebiscite returned a no vote from the public, that the government would not move forward with plans to legalise same sex marriage.

The government would need to flip a couple of crossbench votes to get the plebiscite up in the Senate. In that November vote, the plebiscite was supported by David Leyonhjelm, Jacqui Lambie and the four One Nation senators, but was opposed by Labor, the Greens, the three senators from the Nick Xenophon Team and Derryn Hinch.

As news filtered through on Monday night of the government's recommitting to the public vote, Hinch and his Justice Party were quick to reaffirm that the Victorian senator wouldn't be budging from his earlier stance. Hinch told HuffPost Australia "this man is not for changing under any circumstance".

Nick Xenophon also indicated he and his two other NXT senators would remain opposed to the plebiscite idea, with a party spokesperson confirming to HuffPost Australia "that is the party's position and it hasn't changed."

Liberal MP Warren Entsch, one of those who had supported a free vote in the parliament and opposed his party's policy, told 7.30 that the pro-equality Liberals would "continue our advocacy" for that outcome.

"There are those within the Coalition that nothing we can do will ever change their view... Doesn't matter what we do, they'll never change, they'll be vehement opponents," he said.

"They see [the plebiscite] as making sure nothing happens."

Labor criticised the decision, in a joint release from Mark Dreyfus and Terri Butler, as well as in a Facebook post from leader Bill Shorten.

"The outcome of this evening's coalition party room meeting is a severe disappointment to LGBTI Australians, their families, and those who love them," Dreyfus and Butler said.

"Mr Turnbull had a chance tonight to show some backbone in allowing his MPs to follow a proud Liberal Party tradition – a free vote. And he failed. Australians deserve better."

Marriage equality advocates were also quick to slam the Liberal decision. Human rights lawyers had earlier on Monday flagged a legal challenge to any moves toward a postal plebiscite, and reaffirmed that course of action following the party room meeting.

More to come.

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