After a special Coalition party-room meeting on Tuesday rejected proposals to give members a free vote on the issue, the prime minister pledged to take it to the people, through a plebiscite or referendum.
On Sunday, he ruled out holding a public poll at the same time as the federal election.
“I think the people should be able to consider this in its own right,” Abbott told reporters in Brisbane. “Millions of people in our community have strong views one way or another on this and why shouldn’t we be able to debate this and decide this in its own right without being distracted by the sorts of arguments which you inevitably get during an election campaign?”
Shortly after Abbott’s press conference, the communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, tweeted a link to his blog. In it, he set out why he thought a plebiscite should be held before the next election.
“My own view for what it is worth is that it would be better if same-sex marriage were not a contentious issue at the next election – there are sincere, conscientious differences of opinion throughout the community and on both sides of the political divide and issues like this are better dealt with outside of the frenzied hurly burly of an election campaign,” he wrote. “Important though the matter is, every day talking about same-sex marriage will distract from the Coalition’s core messages.”
The debate about whether to hold a referendum or a non-binding plebiscite on same-sex marriage has revealed bitter divisions within the Liberal party, with George Brandis being the latest to throw a salvo in the very public spat.
On Sunday the attorney general told Sky News the government needed to settle on a model once and for all. “I’m not sure it will happen at the cabinet meeting scheduled for tomorrow, but I do agree and expect that this is a decision that the government should make very soon,” he said.
Opponents of same-sex marriage are pushing for a referendum, which requires a higher threshold to pass.
Brandis has shot down suggestions of a referendum, saying it is unnecessary because the constitution does not define marriage and therefore does not require a referendum to be changed, but he is not opposed to taking the matter to the people.
“I’m satisfied with what we’ve achieved as long as there is a plebiscite,” he said. “I am perfectly happy with that outcome.”
He wants a plebiscite to be compulsory, acknowledging that voters will not appreciate having to go to the polls straight after a federal election.
“I can see the desirability of having the matter out of the way,” he said. “The public will be a little weary, I think, of being taken to the ballot box twice in 12 months.”
But the attorney general said he was “disinclined” to pair the same-sex marriage vote with a referendum on recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution, which he said had an “emotional significance” for society.
The justice minister, Michael Keenan, would not be drawn on what model he would prefer but said last week’s joint party meeting meeting signalled the end of the matter.
“Same-sex marriage has taken up a lot of oxygen,” he told the conservative commentator Andrew Bolt on Sunday. “I think you’ll find when we return to parliament tomorrow that the government will continue to focus on the things that we think are important for the future of Australia.”
The debate about same-sex marriage has seen cabinet ministers openly attack each other and has once again put the spotlight on Abbott’s leadership.
Leaks of the prime minister’s text messages, as reported by News Corp on Sunday, show Abbott knew the backbencher and same-sex marriage advocate Warren Entsch would raise the matter on Tuesday morning.
Abbott reportedly told the party room that he did not know that the question of a free vote on same-sex marriage would be brought up. “All I am going to say is there was nothing I did he didn’t know about,’’ Entsch told News Corp.
Moderates in the Liberal party have warned that same-sex marriage will overshadow the government’s policy messages and could result in voter backlash.
The leader of the Victorian branch of the Liberal party, Matthew Guy, criticised the federal branch’s decision to reject a free vote, warning that it is “poisoning the well of good will for all other elected politicians in the country”.
The Victorian Liberal powerbroker, Michael Kroger, has denied there is a rift between him and Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, after reports he had slapped down questions on why Guy made such scathing comments.
Kroger rejected suggestions that the text message interchange with Credlin showed that party members were openly contemptuous of the prime minister’s office.
“Is there an argument with Peta? No,” Kroger told Bolt. “I’m good friends with her. She sent me texts asking why the state leaders are getting involved in a national issue. I said Matthew has a very strong view about it.”
Brandis also denied that Abbott’s leadership had been weakened by the bruising internal debate about same-sex marriage being played out in the public arena.
“I don’t think there is a leadership question. We resolved that in February and I don’t expect it to re-emerge,” he said. “It was a boisterous week, there’s no doubt about that, but the suggestion of disarray is, with all due respect, nonsense,” he said.