Australia's long-running same-sex marriage debate is set to continue for a while yet, after the Liberal party, currently in a coalition government, chose to stick to its policy of a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage.
In an emergency party room meeting to deal with the vexed issue on Monday afternoon, the party determined it would try again to get the plebiscite through the Senate, with a postal vote as a potential back up option if that fails.
Speaking after the meeting, finance minister Mathias Cormann said the government hoped to put the plebiscite bill back before the Senate — which rejected it in November — this week.
"The government is absolutely committed to keep faith with the commitment that we made to the Australian people and that is to give Australian people a say on whether or not the definition of marriage should be changed," he said.
"Our preference is to do that through a compulsory attendance plebiscite and legislation to that effect ... If that were to fail, the government believes that we have a legal and constitutional way forward to give the Australian people a say on whether or not the definition of marriage should be changed through a non-legislated, voluntary postal plebiscite."
Cormann added that the outcome of either plebiscite would not be binding, and government MPs would have "a free vote informed by the plebiscite outcome".
The resolution from the emergency meeting comes after weeks of heightened discussion on same-sex marriage, which has plagued the government as a near-constant distraction from its agenda.
However, it's unclear if the path chosen by the government will put the issue to rest any time soon.
A combination of Labor, Greens and crossbench senators voted down the plebiscite in the Senate last November, and have signalled that they would vote the same way again, defeating the policy a second time. The vast majority of the bloc are same-sex marriage supporters.
Their reasons for voting it down included the $160 million price tag; the fact the vote would not be binding on the parliament; the negative effects of an ugly debate on LGBTI people; and the question of why Australia would have a national vote on same-sex marriage, but no other contentious piece of policy.
Senator Nick Xenophon told BuzzFeed News he would "absolutely" still vote against the plebiscite when it is re-introduced.
A Labor MP told BuzzFeed News the party was "resolute" in its opposition, while opposition leader Bill Shorten tweeted that the decision was "ridiculous".
The postal vote has been proposed as a way to circumvent having to pass legislation through the Senate — but it would be subject to at least two immediate High Court challenges from advocates who have obtained legal advice it may not be constitutional.
Monday's emergency meeting was called after a group of five government backbenchers — MPs Tim Wilson, Trent Zimmerman, Trevor Evans and Warren Entsch, and senator Dean Smith — launched a push for the government to overturn its plebiscite policy and hold a free vote on same-sex marriage.
The group of five, dubbed the Marriage Rebels, released a draft bill for same-sex marriage on Sunday evening and called for the government to break the political stalemate.
"This is about real people’s lives," Entsch said in the draft bill. "LGBTI people are our brothers and sisters, friends and work colleagues. They just want the same dignity as everyone else in their families. Let’s just do this."
BuzzFeed News understands just seven MPs spoke in favour of a conscience vote in the party room.
Co-chair of Australian Marriage Equality Alex Greenwich said there would be "disappointment from coast to coast" over the Liberal party decision.
"It says the government does not want to do their job, which is to vote through laws," he said.
"The only way we can achieve marriage equality in this parliament is through a vote in the parliament, a majority in both houses.
"We will now likely have another debate on a plebiscite where the nation will be reminded why this was such a bad idea."
Managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Lyle Shelton, tweeted his thanks to the Liberals for "keeping your promise".
The plebiscite policy initially came out of a six-hour emergency joint party room meeting called by then prime minister Tony Abbott in August, 2015.
Although Malcolm Turnbull argued against the plebiscite at the time — instead advocating a free vote — he was forced to adopt the policy when he became prime minister in September that year.
The postal plebiscite idea has been roundly criticised by same-sex marriage advocates as being worse than the original plebiscite. Last month, election experts told BuzzFeed News it would likely overstate the opposition to same-sex marriage in the electorate.
Director of the Human Rights Law Centre and co-chair of The Equality Campaign, Anna Brown, listed a number of flaws of the vote on Monday: "A postal plebiscite cannot ensure compulsory voting. It won’t have the same privacy and procedural safeguards as a federal election. It would skew in favour of older, conservative voters and not reflect the views of young Australians or Australians in remote areas or overseas.
"The usual controls on campaigning and advertising in place for elections and referenda, and proposed by the government in the failed plebiscite bill, would not be in place for a postal plebiscite."
Lane Sainty is the editor of BuzzFeed News in Australia and is based in Sydney.
Contact Lane Sainty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alice Workman is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Canberra.
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