Turnbull ministers push to retry failed same-sex marriage plebiscite

Turnbull government ministers are pushing to retry the failed same-sex marriage plebiscite in a bid to quash or delay a potential backbench uprising as soon as next week.

Assistant Immigration Minister Alex Hawke told Fairfax Media the plebiscite should be reintroduced in the Senate to put pressure on Labor and the crossbench. 

Same sex marriage division

Coalition MPs are considering crossing the floor to make sure same sex marriage is legalised in Australia, and conservatives are unimpressed.

Failing that, a voluntary postal vote – which would not require legislation – was a second-best option that was quickly gathering support in the Liberal party room.

“It would be good for the government to re-put this to the Senate,” Mr Hawke, a factional player in NSW who opposes same-sex marriage, said on Tuesday.

“There are reasonable crossbench senators who will know that a majority of people would like a plebiscite, and the plebiscite is the best way to resolve this issue.

“I think that negotiation can’t happen unless we put it together and I would urge the crossbench to look at it again.”

The Senate rejected enabling legislation for a plebiscite in November last year. It was blocked by Labor, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and Derryn Hinch.

Another conservative minister earlier said the government should be targeting “malleable” senators for a second attempt to pass the plebiscite, arguing Attorney-General George Brandis didn’t try hard enough the first time.

“Xenophon’s a bit of a weathervane on this,” the minister said. “We didn’t try hard enough to get him. They went through the motions [because] George [Brandis] and Malcolm [Turnbull] don’t want the plebiscite.”

Liberal MP Craig Kelly also told the ABC the “best way” forward was to prosecute the plebiscite again and “put pressure on the Senate”.

But Senator Xenophon, asked if he could change his mind and support a plebiscite, emphatically said: “No.”

Senator Hinch also said he would not budge. “This man is not for changing … I’ll vote it down again,” he told Fairfax Media.

Conservatives are responding to a renewed push by moderate Liberal MPs, including several gay MPs, to bring the issue to a head and allow a conscience vote on a private members’ bill from Liberal senator Dean Smith.

Those MPs have indicated they would consider crossing the floor to suspend standing orders and bring on a vote if the Liberal party room does not agree to dump the plebiscite and accept a conscience vote.

The Prime Minister tried to hose down the excitement on Tuesday, stressing the government’s position was “very, very clear and it has not changed”.

“We made a commitment to give every Australian a say on this issue, and that is our policy – it has not changed,” he said.

Mr Turnbull also castigated journalists for their “enormous interest” in same-sex marriage compared to the government’s youth internships program, which was supposed to be the subject of his press conference.

As the Coalition prepares for a showdown on same-sex marriage when Parliament returns next week, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said the government was examining alternative ways of proceeding with the failed plebiscite.

Senator Cormann, along with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, is a senior conservative member of the government known to favour the postal plebiscite option.

“We’re now exploring other ways to keep faith with the Australian people,” he told ABC radio on Tuesday. “Let’s just wait and see. The commitment [to a plebiscite] hasn’t expired.”

Mr Hawke said a postal vote was “not the first preference” but was “another option for resolving this issue that fits the government’s election commitment”.

Other ministers remain unconvinced of the merits of a postal vote, arguing it would be voluntary, illegitimate and potentially vulnerable to legal challenge.

Same-sex marriage lobbyists are particularly fearful that a voluntary postal vote would yield a low turnout, particularly among younger voters, and fail.

Mr Dutton on Tuesday pleaded with colleagues to restrain themselves until the Liberal party room meets to debate the matter next week.

“It needs to be dealt with behind closed doors,” he told 5AA radio.

“Now is the time for people, having had their say, frankly to contain their comments until they get back to the party room. That’s where the Liberal Party has our best discussions and our best debates.”

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