Many of the issues likely to get conservative MPs in the Coalition offside about any push for a free vote on marriage equality were not addressed by a landmark Parliament report on the government’s draft same-sex marriage bill.

The committee recommended unanimously that should the bill be introduced at some later point, exemptions must be kept in place for religious ministers and religious businesses and organisations to refuse to offer services to weddings of any kind — not just same-sex weddings — if they were against their beliefs.

The committee also recommended a new carve-out for celebrants with ties to religious organisations that also might have religious objections to performing wedding ceremonies. This would mean that people would be able to tell when seeking out a celebrant whether the celebrant was religious and might object to their wedding.

But the committee left much of the more controversial aspects of the legislation to a future committee, should the legislation actually be introduced. There was no agreement on whether Christian bakers or other businesses should be exempt from having to provide services to weddings, and no agreement on whether individual people should be able to object to providing services on religious or “conscience” grounds.

Any law changes would require yet another marriage equality committee, with submissions and public hearings and reports and amendments.

One point of agreement was that instead of defining the legislation as to allow two people of the same gender to get married, it would allow two adults to get married. This essentially makes the legislation inclusive to transgender and intersex people.

The chair of the committee reviewing the legislation, marriage equality opponent David Fawcett, noted in his opening comments of the report that the current government policy remained to hold a plebiscite on the legislation, and the committee was all the work of Labor, the Greens and NXT. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would not promise to take a plebiscite to the next election when asked about it on 2GB radio on Wednesday.

The committee report provides an opening for a pro-marriage equality MP or senator in the Liberal Party to bring up the matter in a future party room meeting, meaning the party could be set to tackle the matter as early as a couple of weeks.

Reports have suggested those in favour of the change want to get it done and passed before the budget — which is just three sitting weeks away — but Turnbull’s lurch to the right to keep conservatives within his party happy means it could struggle to get on the agenda any time soon.

When the matter last came before the Liberal party room when Tony Abbott was still the leader, Abbott pulled a swift one on the moderates and held a joint party room meeting to include the Nats — who overwhelmingly oppose the change. This resulted in the plebiscite being decided as the way forward. Turnbull would be less likely to use the same tactics if it comes up again, but LNP MP George Christensen (who sits with the Nationals) has said that any change away from the plebiscite policy would be in breach of the Liberal-National Coalition agreement.

Moderates in the Liberal Party believe that now that the plebiscite has been defeated in the Senate, they are absolved from that election promise and can now push for a free vote.

While media reports today that there was no dissenting report on the committee, Tasmanian Liberal backbencher and avowed marriage equality opponent Eric Abetz — who did not attend any of the hearings of the committee — filed his own helpful “additional comments”, essentially arguing that no case had been made to change the law based on his thorough examination of the issue.

While Abetz is no longer the conservative standard bearer within the Coalition he once was — he’s now more of the Dad’s Army to the new generation of conservatives such as Peter Dutton and Michael Sukkar — in staking out his opposition to the bill, Abetz is indicating that the conservatives would fight any move to progress the issue in the party room.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey