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View from The Hill

Abbott’s troops not all in step

Cory Bernardi has once again made headlines with his views of gay marriage. AAP/Alan Porritt

Any troubles Tony Abbott has are tiddlers compared with Julia Gillard’s but, despite his repeated pleas for discipline, the opposition leader can’t stop a few cracks and breakouts.

Today there were three.

The first was over the referendum to recognise local government in the constitution.

In the Coalition party room, those who oppose the referendum – and they are quite a solid block - suddenly have new grist from the government’s decision to give $10 million to fund the “yes” case but only $500,000 for the “no” one.

The “no” allocation was based on the tally of MPs (two Liberals) who voted against the referendum in the lower House. There will be more in the Senate, where a number of Coalition senators plan to cross the floor or abstain in the vote due this week.

Abbott has written a sharp letter to the PM, declaring there should be equal funding.

He’s on a classic barb wire fence over the referendum. The opposition has given it formal but lukewarm backing, with Abbott making it clear he wouldn’t be campaigning actively for it.

The government’s foolish decision on lopsided funding may be providing Abbott with a rationale for stepping back further. He told the party room the issue was “unfolding”.

But if Abbott retreats, he will be repudiating his local government spokesman Barnaby Joyce, who told the national assembly of local government in Canberra today: “I’m passionately engaged with wanting to get this up”.

In a frank account of the opposition’s divisions Joyce, noting that the debate had started in the Senate, went on: “This is going to be tough. We will have people crossing the floor against this. … I’ve tried my best but these people are crossing the floor because at the primary level in their connection with local government officials they have not been talked to, not in numbers, not in a pestiferous, engaged and calculated way”. Others, he said, would not turn up for the vote.

Becoming even more confessional, Joyce said: “I am fighting on your behalf in the Leadership Group of the Coalition … To be honest with you, I’m burning up political capital doing it, trying to keep them on board to make sure we get this thing through”.

On another front, right wing senator Cory Bernardi was again being provocative about gay marriage.

Last year Bernardi lost his shadow parliamentary secretaryship over his comments suggesting legalising gay marriage could be a slippery slope to accepting polyamory and even unions between people and animals. Gay Marriage is again on MPs minds with debate this week on a Greens bill to recognise internationally sanctioned same sex marriages.

In an interview with Fairfax Media Bernardi claimed some vindication for last year’s comments. “There is actually now a petition been put together for the House of Representatives by Green activists to legally recognise multi-member unions”, he said, in a reference to a recent petition by the Polyamory Action Lobby.

“Now I said that would happen”, Bernardi said. Colleagues just wish he would bite his tongue. But that is not in Bernardi’s nature – he works on the principle that views are for the stating.

The third breakout came in the Senate tonight, where the government has introduced an amendment that would prohibit religious organisations that provide Commonwealth-funded aged care from discriminating on the basis of sexuality.

The Coalition opposes the amendment - which had not been produced in the earlier stages of considering the wider anti-discrimination legislation - but Queensland Liberal senator Sue Boyce strongly supported it.

She told the Senate that religious organisations could not have things both ways. They could not say they did not discriminate while also saying they did not want the anti-discrimination provision affecting them.

Boyce is expected to cross the floor on the issue when the vote comes. In addition, West Australian senator Dean Smith (who is gay) is expected to abstain.

A few hours before, Abbott had told his party room that it was never more important than in this last sitting fortnight to maintain discipline.

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