Senator Louise Pratt joined the Canberra Gay and Lesbian Qwire to sing outside Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday 16 August 2017. Fedpol. Photo: Andrew Meares MPs in favour of same-sex marriage reform are bracing for “a blizzard of amendments”, or a rival bill, from Christian conservatives intent on delaying the legalisation until they have all the safeguards for religious freedom they deem necessary.
Conservatives believe the Parliament should ensure businessess and individuals who refuse services to same-sex couples on religious grounds are not exposed to adverse legal consequences under any change to the Marriage Act.
The looming progressive versus conservative battle is the next headache for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was criticised for ordering the $122 million protracted postal poll, while reassuring voters their verdict would be respected if they backed change by Parliament expediting the matter before Christmas.
With the n Bureau of Statistics reporting that nearly eight in 10 ns returned their forms, pessimistic “no” campaigners have confirmed they will insist on major changes to the way same-sex marriage is introduced if the “yes” vote gets up – as expected – when results are announced next Wednesday.
At present the only proposed same-sex marriage legislation on the table is the private member’s bill drafted by Liberal senator Dean Smith. This bill has been through the committee process and is ready to go.
But prominent conservative “no” MPs say this bill fails to provide sufficient religious exemptions for businesses, individuals and schools, and that it does not guarantee freedom of speech to conscientious objectors.
“In the event of ‘yes’ vote, the Dean Smith bill is an insufficient basis to start the conversation,” conservative Liberal senator Eric Abetz told Fairfax Media.
“While it would be desirable to have the matter resolved by Christmas, it is an artificial deadline in relation to this matter.
“It’s more important to get this right, rather than rushed.”
One MP said the Dean Smith bill was “exceptionally narrow”, and conservative sources confirmed a rival bill is being drafted by a group of right-wing MPs.
Mr Turnbull has pledged that in the event of a “yes” result, the government would “facilitate” the passage of a private members’ bill but has not said which one.
There are only two parliamentary sitting weeks left this year in which to legislate gay marriage.
Former Abbott government minister Kevin Andrews has argued Senator Smith’s proposed legislation is silent on crucial protections.
“The Dean Smith bill has virtually no protection for religion and belief in its terms,” he said.
“It’s very narrow, it doesn’t even apply to all marriage celebrants, and it only applies to the wedding ceremony itself.”
Education Minister Simon Birmingham on Thursday issued a clear warning to conservatives angling to take control of the parliamentary process.
“It would be illogical and inconsistent with past practice for those who oppose change who seek to be the authors of a bill for that change,” he said.
Pro-gay marriage LNP MP Warren Entsch said the Dean Smith bill had already been scrutinised and should be introduced without delay if the “yes” vote was successful.
If conservative MPs wanted to amend it, they could “test the numbers on the floor of the house”.
“Let’s do what we’re paid to do. Let’s put the bloody legislation through without any further delay,” Mr Entsch said.
“I am confident the vote will go through in the last few weeks. It has to, it has to. I will not go into Christmas without it. There have been commitments made.”
Another pro-change MP told Fairfax Media it would be “a bit rich” if the people who have campaigned furiously against the change, “decisively lost the argument with voters, but still expected to write the bill”.
Progressives also complain that the “no” case focused on “everything but same-sex-marriage” during the postal survey campaign period and, having seen their arguments rejected by voters, unreasonably demand that the Parliament take up the cause.
n Conservatives senator Cory Bernardi has linked the upcoming parliamentary debate to the dual citizenship crisis, saying instead of waving through the change, the Parliament should be prorogued.
“I don’t want to lose it with people in the Parliament who shouldn’t be there,” he said, as more MPs suspected of dual citizenship emerged on Thursday.
But in the wake of what is tipped to be strong public support, conservatives trying to drag debate into 2018 will have their own factional leaders to contend with, as well as the bulk of Coalition MPs who have promised to respect the postal survey outcome.
Senior ministers including prominent social conservatives like Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, Treasurer Scott Morrison, and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, have told colleagues they want the marriage law settled by the Parliament this year.
They believe any manoeuvres seen as creating unnecessary delays following a decisive public vote for change would leave ns feeling cheated.
Mr Dutton and Senator Cormann, key members of Mr Turnbull’s Praetorian Guard, also believe the same-sex marriage issue has dogged the government for long enough, causing disproportionate damage to party room unity, and attracting more attention than it is worth.
Along with Mr Morrison, they are expected to use their influence within the party’s right wing to ensure the change is enacted before Christmas.