View from The Hill

Abbott facing crunch over same-sex marriage bill

A message to Tony Abbott is seen at floral arrangement in front of Parliament House in Canberra. Lukas Coch/AAP

For the second time this year Liberal MPs have asserted themselves over their leader. Making it clear they wanted a contest for the speakership, with no attempted “captain’s pick”, was nothing like the warning they sent Tony Abbott in February, but it still carried a message: don’t mess with us – too much.

In selecting Tony Smith, the House of Representatives Liberals chose the man Abbott demoted from shadow cabinet to a shadow parliamentary secretary and then did not think worth including in his government frontbench. Ouch.

Now the question is: can the backbench – or some of its members – achieve the trifecta?

Behind the scenes, heavy arm-twisting was underway on Monday about the cross-party same-sex marriage bill.

Queensland Liberal Warren Entsch is set to lodge notice of the bill with the table office on Tuesday. That would then appear on the notice paper on Wednesday.

Abbott and Entsch met on Monday. There are conflicting reports about what happened. One version is that Abbott wanted him to stay his hand on the bill, talking of a plebiscite, and Entsch told him where to go. Entsch denies Abbott tried to get the bill stopped.

On the tactics previously agreed by the “pro” camp, Entsch will introduce the bill next week. Late on Monday, notice of the bill was headed for Tuesday afternoon’s meeting of the committee that selects the bills that come before the House of Representatives. It should be a formality for this committee to tick off the introduction of what is a private member’s bill.

The big question is whether that committee would subsequently let the bill proceed to a full debate and vote later this year. The committee is dominated by the government. The switch of Speaker, who chairs the selection committee, might play into the dynamics.

It is still unclear when or even if the partyroom will discuss a conscience vote for Liberals. This discussion could be avoided if the bill were buried by the selection committee.

The problem for the Liberal same-sex marriage proponents is that they are in a minority. By contrast, those determined to head off any whiff of a “captain’s call” for the speakership were a majority.

The other difference is that same-sex marriage is a much bigger issue for Abbott than who was going to succeed Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker.

Holding firm against same-sex marriage, stalling the progress of the bill and even a conscience vote are all matters on which Abbott wants to deliver, if possible, to the conservatives in his parliamentary party and in the Liberal base. He will use whatever political tactics he can. These are the people on whom his future could depend if the leadership became dicey again.

On the other hand, Abbott has been warned by some colleagues against pushing too hard to frustrate the bill.

If those promoting same-sex marriage want to get their bill considered before the election, this would seem the time to take advantage of Abbott’s weak situation.

Their opponents, however, may seek to pre-empt them by having the partyroom reaffirm the Coalition’s present anti-same-sex-marriage policy.

The numbers may not be there in the parliament to pass a bill.

There may not be sufficient support in the partyroom even for a conscience vote to be agreed – and the Liberals would look bad in the electorate if they decided against giving their MPs a free vote.

But they would look worse if Abbott were able to thwart the question being brought to a head, especially with pro- and anti-change ads running in the media, Canberra’s airport lit with rainbow lights, and the community actively talking about the issue and a majority backing change.

The party would be exposed as lacking the guts even to have the discussion. The proponents should act immediately to declare their intention to the partyroom to push their cause. At least the battle would openly be joined.

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

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