Senior Government ministers are moving to avoid another feud within the Coalition over same-sex marriage, nominating Liberal Dean Smith’s bill as “a good starting point”, while promising “ample protections for religious freedoms”.
As expectations grow a “yes” result will be announced on Wednesday, those on the conservative side have been trying to exert influence over the shape of any bill to legalise same-sex marriage.
Key dates in SSM postal survey:
August 24 — the final day to register with the AEC if you want to take part in the survey September 12 — survey forms start being sent out September 25 — all forms are expected to have been sent October 27 — forms are strongly encouraged to be returned by this date November 7 — the final deadline to return surveys
- November 15 — results are released
Senator Smith’s plan has attracted broad parliamentary support — but Liberal Senator James Paterson released an alternative on Monday, which he argued would provide even greater protections for religious freedoms, beyond the ceremony itself.
Some conservatives are deeply concerned the “centre-right” Coalition could be the party to legalise same-sex marriage and see “heavy” religious protections as their only protection against a backlash from party members and supporters.
But Attorney-General George Brandis said the Coalition had “gone to great lengths to make sure this is ultimately the call of the Australian people” and any bill would contain “ample religious protections”.
“We have always made it clear that the protection of religious freedom is an important value,” he told 7.30.
“But where you draw the line, how narrowly or how broadly you draw the line, is going to be the subject, no doubt, of a lot of attention during the parliamentary debate.”
Bill could mean demolishing anti-discrimination laws
The protections contained in Senator Smith’s bill would ensure religious ministers and civil celebrants cannot be sued if they refuse to marry same-sex couples.
But Senator Paterson’s version has gone much further — allowing private businesses to refuse goods and services for gay weddings if they have “conscientious objections”.
Senator Paterson’s bill would effectively mean demolishing or overriding existing anti-discrimination laws — which Cabinet Minister Simon Birmingham said the Government had no intention of doing.
“We already have very clear anti-discrimination laws that say you can’t turn customers away on the basis of their gender, race, and sexuality and we should not be changing the operation of those laws,” Senator Birmingham said.
Senator Paterson’s intervention in the debate has infuriated some colleagues, who have questioned whether the Victorian Senator — who voted Yes in the survey — was now trying to burnish his conservative credentials to shore up his pre-selection.
One MP said their “gut turned” when they read the details of Senator Paterson’s bill, while another Coalition MP accused him and his conservative colleagues of trying to “torpedo” the process.
There is also an element of frustration among the same-sex marriage supporters, who feel that they have “bent over backwards” to meet the demands of the right-wing of the party — including agreeing to a postal survey.
Depending on the outcome of the survey, Senator Smith is set to table his bill on Thursday, while Senator Paterson is yet to decide whether he will introduce his plan to the Upper House or the party room for further debate.
However, senior members of the Government have made it clear there is little appetite for more debate and the fate of both bills would be decided in Parliament.