Prime Minister Tony Abbott says the coalition is open to a cultural shift on same-sex marriage but any decision needs to be made by the people and not parliament.
As marriage equality supporters come to terms with a coalition party room decision to deny its MPs a free vote on the issue, Mr Abbott firmed up a commitment to hold a referendum or plebiscite on the issue after the next election.
“This is an issue which is so personal … why not let the people rather than the parliament decide this?” he told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.
“That’s the democratic and the fair thing to do.” Mr Abbott cautioned that same-sex marriage had “only very recently come into our intellectual and cultural parameters” as opposed to the “time immemorial” position that marriage was one between a man and a woman.
“Obviously the fact that we are disposed to put it to the people in the next term of parliament shows that we are open to change,” he said.
“But please let’s not underestimate the magnitude of this as a cultural shift.”
Treasurer Joe Hockey ruled out any plebiscite or referendum being held in conjunction with the next federal election.
A referendum could remove the commonwealth’s power over marriage, he told ABC radio.
Labor accused Mr Abbott of using the prospect of a plebiscite as another delaying tactic.
It amounted to parliament refusing to do its job, opposition frontbencher Penny Wong said.
“The motivation of those arguing for a plebiscite is clear because they are the same people who have done everything in their power, played every trick in the book to avoid a free vote in this parliament,” the openly-gay senator told ABC radio.
She is also concerned a plebiscite will lead to an even more ugly, hurtful and divisive public debate.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten warned a plebiscite, which isn’t binding on a government, would costs tens of millions of dollars.
“Frankly, I am surprised at why some in the government are so obsessed about stopping marriage equality,” he told the Seven Network.
Deputy Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce told reporters the move to allow a free vote would have been defeated even if the Liberals voted on their own.
“It’s important this boil be lanced,” he said of a plebiscite. Mr Abbott conceded government backbenchers were free to support a private bill that will be introduced to parliament by Liberal MP Warren Entsch next week.
But any minister who wanted to support same-sex marriage would have to resign, he said.
Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said if all MPs had a free vote, marriage equality would be law by Christmas.