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Liberals face crunch on marriage as Coalition behind in 17th consecutive Newspoll

Malcolm Turnbull increased his better prime minister rating from 43% to 46%, while Bill Shorten declined from 32% to 31%. Paul Miller/AAP

Liberals face crunch on marriage as Coalition behind in 17th consecutive Newspoll

The Coalition continues to trail Labor 47-53% but Malcolm Turnbull has improved his position vis-a-vis Bill Shorten in Newspoll, as the Liberals go into Monday’s showdown over same-sex marriage.

Turnbull has increased his lead as better prime minister, and improved more on “net satisfaction” than Shorten, who also picked up on this measure – though both remain in deeply negative territory.

This is the 17th consecutive Newspoll in which Labor has led, and the sixth consecutive one in which the two-party margin has been 53-47% in Labor’s favour.

Turnbull goes into Monday’s special Liberal meeting on same-sex marriage facing a situation where there is no good option, in political terms, for dealing with the deep schism in the party over the issue.

There is expected to be robust support for reaffirming the election commitment to a plebiscite. As a compromise there could be backing for a postal ballot – sold as a form of plebiscite – perhaps after the Senate was tested again on the plebiscite legislation. A successful postal vote could then be followed by a free vote in parliament.

The Senate has rejected the plebiscite legislation once and would be nearly certain to do so again.

The postal vote could be held without Senate approval, although a legal challenge is threatened.

Turnbull may call a secret vote of the partyroom, which would give an added layer of uncertainty, because some members might take a different position than they would adopt in a more open test of opinion.

The coterie of rebel Liberals pressing for the party to dump the plebiscite and go to an immediate free vote in parliament is not expected to be able to win majority backing. It would then become a question of whether they’d be prepared to defy the partyroom, using their numbers to get a vote in parliament. They have left this up in the air.

The rebels are four House of Representatives members – Warren Entsch, Trevor Evans, Tim Wilson and Trent Zimmerman – and senator Dean Smith, who has a private member’s bill.

Entsch on Sunday said he was focused on getting an outcome rather than on the process. He was willing to wait a few more weeks if necessary but not months, he said.

Entsch has only three sitting weeks before he goes for an extended period as a parliamentary representative to the UN in New York. He said he would “absolutely” be willing to come back for a parliamentary vote if need be.

Zimmerman said he was seeking to achieve a “process that leads to finality”. He was concerned about a postal vote because if there was a low turnout things would be “back to square one”, he told Sky.

Smith’s bill has now been circulated to colleagues with an explanatory letter. It provides extensive protection for those with religious objections.

It creates a new category of religious marriage celebrants who could decline to perform a same-sex marriage. This would include existing civil celebrants wanting only to perform marriages consistent with their faith, and ministers who perform marriages for denominations that are not recognised, including independent religious organisations and smaller, emerging groups.

Bodies established for religious purposes would be able to refuse to make a facility available or provide goods and services for a marriage. The refusal would have to conform to the beliefs of the religion of the body or be “necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion”.

Smith told the ABC that none of the many earlier bills on the subject had “more comprehensively dealt with the issue of religious freedoms or religious protections”.

He stressed that “this is a Coalition-led bill. People cannot be guaranteed that if a future Labor government is elected, these religious freedoms will be there.”

Smith has been highlighting that a free vote would be in the tradition of former Liberal prime ministers Robert Menzies and John Howard.

He said it was a distraction to see the issue through the prism of leadership, and argued that Howard had used the conscience vote as a political management tool. “I think that Malcolm Turnbull and my colleagues could channel John Howard’s political management techniques on this particular instance.”

Smith flagged he wanted the bill introduced in the house first, saying this was important for its “moral authority” – although it is more likely choosing that route would be primarily a matter of tactics.

In Newspoll Labor’s primary vote fell a point to 36%, level with the Coalition’s vote which did not change over the fortnight. The Greens rose two points to 11%; One Nation continued its recent decline, falling one point to 8%.

Turnbull’s net satisfaction improved from minus 20 to minus 12; Shorten’s net satisfaction went from minus 20 to minus 15.

Turnbull increased his better prime minister rating from 43% to 46%, while Shorten declined from 32% to 31%.

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