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Abbott delivers to the conservatives on same-sex marriage, but at what cost?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott faces the media after a marathon Coalition joint party room meeting. Lukas Coch/AAP

A ruthlessly determined Tony Abbott has got his way on same-sex marriage. Coalition MPs came out two to one in favour of the government’s current policy and against a free vote, in an extraordinary meeting of five-and-a-half hours in which some 90 MPs spoke.

The chance of same-sex marriage being legislated in Australia this parliamentary term is stone dead.

Abbott is likely to promise that if he is re-elected there will be a popular vote to decide the issue.

Abbott has delivered to the conservatives in his parliamentary party and his electoral base. But the price of victory could be high for him. He has ignored public opinion, and gone back on what he earlier said was the way in which this issue should be dealt with. He has reinforced the criticisms within his party that are mounting again about his style and pigheadedness.

Bill Shorten, promising a bill legalising same-sex marriage within 100 days of being elected, will have a simple and potentially very popular policy. He will also have ammunition to paint Abbott as out of step with the times.

At a late-night news conference, Abbott announced what can only be described as a mishmash that he said would be refined before the election. He said there were two options for the Coalition for the next term.

The first was to continue support for traditional marriage but for Coalition MPs to have a free vote if the issue came up in parliament.

The second was to have the existing position but to settle the matter in the next term by putting it to the people in a referendum or plebiscite.

Abbott said that there was a strong feeling in the partyroom that if the Coalition were to adjust its policy to having a free vote now “a lot of people who voted for us were going to feel dudded”. But he believed that this was the last term in which the Coalition party room could be bound.

“This disposition of the party room this evening is that our position going into the next election should be that in a subsequent term of parliament, this is a matter that should rightly be put to the Australian people.”

Abbott was vague about the form of the vote. “We could have a plebiscite or a constitutional referendum,” he said, as though there was not much difference. But there is a vast difference – not least because a constitutional referendum has to be carried not just by an overall majority but a majority of states.

Also, Abbott’s popular-vote option starts with the proposition that “we support the existing position that marriage is between a man and a woman” with a vote “to put this matter beyond doubt”. That sounds as if an Abbott government would be loading what was put to the people to give the best chance for the status quo to be retained.

Abbott’s support for a popular vote directly contradicts his view after the Irish referendum, when he said that in Australia the appropriate decider is parliament. He was right then and wrong now. This issue, which has strong community support, does not require millions of dollars being spent on a plebiscite, let alone a referendum.

It is no coincidence that those in favour of a popular vote tend to be those against change, including Scott Morrison and Joe Hockey. They see it not just as a way of putting off the issue but they know that a no vote can often be mobilised relatively easily and if it is a referendum, history has shown it is extremely difficult to get something carried.

Tuesday’s marathon meeting came after Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch raised the issue of his private member’s bill at the morning Liberal party meeting. Abbott, in what Liberal critics saw as tricky tactics, not only called a special meeting within hours, but made it a joint one with the Nationals, who are overwhelmingly opposed to same-sex marriage.

Abbott justified this by saying he had referred, before the 2013 election, to the matter being dealt with by the “Coalition” partyroom if it arose in this parliament. At the Liberal meeting, senior minister Christopher Pyne likened bringing in the Nationals to “branch stacking”.

The Nationals bolstered the anti-numbers, but there would have been a majority against the conscience vote even without them. Regardless of what he said before the election, Abbott invited anger by his resort to the Nationals, although it was always expected he would call on them.

Overall the backbenchers were strongly for the status quo; the ministers were more evenly split.

Abbott said that roughly 60 supported the existing position, while about 30 said there should be a free vote, with half a dozen of the latter saying it there was a free vote they would support the current definition of marriage.

The contribution of Malcolm Turnbull, a high-profile backer of marriage equality, was strong and notable, criticising the process, including that there had not been a cabinet discussion. Julie Bishop lamented that they were supposed to be talking about climate on Tuesday.

Entsch plans to go ahead with introducing his cross-party bill next Monday but Abbott has made it clear it will not get debated.

While Abbott spoke of the risk of voters feeling dudded if the Coalition adopted a conscience vote, his sister Christine Forster spoke for those on the other side of the argument who feel dudded.

Forster told the ABC: “The PM did stand up and say in parliament – and I certainly heard him and everybody else did – that this should be a matter for the parliament. And it turns out that it is going to be a matter for parties now. It won’t be a matter for the parliament because it can’t be without a conscience vote.”

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, here or on iTunes.

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