View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Polling finds Abbott swimming against strong tide on same-sex marriage

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has rejected the idea of having a same-sex marriage plebiscite at the next election. Glenn Hunt/AAP

New polling has shown almost seven in ten Australians favour legalising same-sex marriage, as Tony Abbott rules out a popular vote with the election and the government remains racked by division.

Far from things being settled with last week’s decisive partyroom rejection of a conscience vote, ministers continue to argue over whether the vote should be a plebiscite or a referendum and about the timing.

The fraught issue is set to be canvassed at a cabinet meeting on Monday.

Fresh questions are being raised about Abbott’s leadership even though last Tuesday’s outcome pleased his conservative base within the Liberal Party, on whom his survival depends.

There will be further parliamentary embarrassment with Monday’s introduction of a private member’s bill by Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch.

The Fairfax-Ipsos poll, done Thursday to Saturday, found 69% supported legalising same-sex marriage, a rise of one point since June. Only 25% – unchanged – opposed it.

There was majority support in all age groups, although backing declined with age: among 18-24-year-olds, 88%; 25-39-year-olds, 76%; 40-54-year-olds, 70%; and 55 and older, 55%.

The poll reinforces the argument put strongly by some Liberals that the issue is electorally dangerous for the government and will reinforce Labor’s argument that Abbott is out of touch with voters and especially younger ones.

After the Coalition partyroom meeting, Abbott promised a popular vote in the next parliamentary term. But he has not publicly declared whether he wants a plebiscite or a referendum.

Ministers are resisting the way forward being allowed to be a “captain’s call”. They also want the process settled as soon as possible.

Liberal moderate ministers – including Attorney-General George Brandis, Education Minister Christopher Pyne (facing a tough fight in his South Australian seat of Sturt), and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull – have been speaking out publicly since the party room meeting.

Brandis, interviewed on Sky on Sunday, repeated his strong opposition to making the popular vote a referendum, saying it was not necessary.

Brandis yet again slapped down Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, who opposes same-sex marriage and is advocating a referendum, which would be much harder to pass than a plebiscite. He suggested Morrison seemed to be unaware of a key High Court judgement.

“My colleague Scott Morrison gave an interview on Wednesday night in which he thought there was some lack of clarity about the marriage power, and if there were a lack of clarity it would be perfectly sensible to have a referendum,” Brandis said.

“But he was, I imagine, unaware that as listed two years ago the High Court had made a decision in the ACT same-sex marriage legislation case in which it had unanimously, and without any qualification whatsoever, concluded that the marriage power, as currently written, would enable the Commonwealth parliament to make a law in relation to same-sex marriage.”

Brandis said if there was a plebiscite it should be compulsory voting, and the question should be about same-sex marriage, not one containing multiple options (such as civil unions).

Brandis said there was a variety of views about when a plebiscite should be held, and he had not resolved his own opinion. “That’s a discussion we are yet to have,” he said.

Asked when the government would decide the form of the vote, Brandis said: “I’m not sure that it will happen at the Cabinet meeting scheduled for tomorrow, but I do agree and expect that this is a decision that the government should make very soon.”

In a blog, Turnbull wrote pointedly that “the government has not made a final decision on the timing of a plebiscite. The prime minister has indicated a disposition to have this considered after the next election. The partyroom has not debated the matter nor indeed has the cabinet”.

Turnbull reiterated his own view that the plebiscite should be before the election.

But Abbott said that while there were “some loose ends” yet to be tied up, “the fundamental decision has been made”.

“The fundamental decision is that this government in the next term of parliament will put this very important question to the people for their decision.”

Rejecting the option of putting a popular vote with the election, Abbott said: “That’s certainly an argument that people are able to make, but I think the people should be able to consider this in its own right”.

News Corp on Sunday reported that Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin had texted Victorian Liberal president Michael Kroger to ask why state Liberal leader Matthew Guy had attacked Abbott on same-sex marriage.

Kroger told Credlin that Guy believed in a conscience vote. Guy said that “people who feel that members should be bound on matters of conscience by a party vote – well, they need to go back and look at the rationale on which our party was founded by Robert Menzies. It wasn’t one of binding votes, it was one of conscience”.

Same-sex marriage advocate Christine Forster, who is Abbott’s sister, plans to contact the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday to ask it for a meeting with advocates.

Forster said the same-sex marriage representatives would seek to know what the process was going to be.

Forster on Sunday hosted a function for NSW Liberals where last week’s events were discussed. “Everyone decided we keep fighting the good fight,” she told The Conversation.