Entsch warns against ‘ambush’ meeting on marriage, amid speculation about postal ballot

Warren Entsch said he was astounded and offended by a letter sent to Queensland LNP members attacking MPs who publicly support same-sex marriage. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Liberal MP Warren Entsch has warned against any attempt at an “ambush” on same-sex marriage by having a Coalition parties meeting consider the issue before the Liberal Party finalises its position.

This follows Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce saying on Wednesday that: “I want to have the joint partyroom to have this discussion.”

Entsch, one of the rebel Liberals pushing for a parliamentary vote, said a discussion in the joint parties meeting could come after the Liberal Party meeting formed a view.

But “we are not an amalgamated party. We are two separate parties. I want a discussion with my Liberal colleagues. I do not want to be ambushed as I was by my previous prime minister.”

In 2015 Tony Abbott brought the Nationals into the marathon debate on same-sex marriage to bolster the conservative side. Some Liberals, including cabinet minister Christopher Pyne, were furious.

The Liberal rebels, who include four lower house members and one senator, are not ruling out crossing the floor to try to force a parliamentary vote. If four house members crossed that would likely be enough to reach the required 76 votes.

Asked whether he would abide by whatever the Liberal Party decided, Entsch said he was neither making any threats nor pre-empting what he might do.

Earlier, Entsch told the ABC he was “quite astounded and highly offended” by a letter sent to Queensland Liberal National Party rank-and-file members by LNP president Gary Spence attacking “members elected under the LNP banner [who] have chosen to take a position that defies LNP policy and the wishes of the LNP’s membership”.

“In the 20 years that I’ve been in this job I’ve never seen anything like that coming to me,” Entsch said.

The Liberal Party meeting on Tuesday will be held immediately before the joint meeting with the Nationals. The separate Liberal gathering is usually very short.

Joyce said the Nationals would have a discussion at a (long-scheduled) meeting of their parliamentary party to be held on Thursday night and Friday in Rockhampton.

As tensions remain high over the explosive situation, the prospects of the government holding a postal vote have risen. This course is being pressed by the LNP but is strongly opposed by the marriage equality lobby and advocates of change, including Entsch.

Questions about its legality were raised on Wednesday but Anne Twomey, from Sydney University’s Law School, said there was adequate legal authority.

Twomey said the Commonwealth Electoral Act allowed the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct plebiscites, and the spending could be covered by a regulation under the Financial Framework (Supplementary Powers) Act. But she pointed out such a regulation could be disallowed by the Senate.

Turnbull may argue a postal ballot was a form of the promised plebiscite that the government cannot get through the Senate. But he would have to explain his opposition to such a course two decades ago, to which Crikey drew attention on Wednesday.

In 1997, in an article in The Australian on the postal ballot for some of the delegates to the republic convention, Turnbull was scathing about a voluntary postal ballot.

He wrote it was “likely to ensure that not only will a minority of Australians vote, but also that large sections of the community will be disenfranchised because they will either not receive a ballot paper or because they will not be able to understand the electoral materials posted to them”.

Tony Abbott, in one of his regular 2GB spots, reiterated his support for a plebiscite. Asked whether Turnbull would need to come up with a new approach leading into the election, Abbott said: “No. If it was good enough to put this to the people at the last election, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be good to put it to the people at the next election.”

Directing tough words to any MP thinking of crossing the floor, Abbott said they should remember the platform on which they were elected.

“Every single one of them was happy enough to say to the people at the last election ‘elect me and you will get a say over this whole question of same-sex marriage’.

"For them to cross the floor to try to ensure that the parliament does it – that is a real breach of faith with the public.

"It’s obviously a dramatic loss of discipline inside the government, it’s a serious attack on the authority of the leadership, but at the end of the day it is a breach of faith with the electorate.

"And I hope they will think long and hard before they do that because it runs contrary to everything they got elected on and none of them said pre-election ‘oh by the way, if you vote for me I will not feel compelled by the Coalition’s policy’.”

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