Gay men don't really want to get married, according to Federal Senator Eric Abetz.
The conservative cabinet minister reportedly used billionaire Italian fashion designers Dolce and Gabbana, who never wed, as an example during a snap Coalition meeting where he suggested other ministers who supported gay marriage should resign.
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Senator Abetz, who has since released a statement labelling the Australian Financial Review reports as "completely false", was labelled a clown by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
"That shows you how out of touch Mr Abbott's Liberals are," Mr Shorten said.
"They are so out of touch. I am staggered you have got the most senior, or the second most senior Liberal in the Senate coming up with those sort of half-baked arguments."
Coalition MPs who cross the floor on gay marriage will be demoted
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has committed to sacking coalition frontbenchers should they choose to defy the party's position to oppose gay marriage.
Coalition MPs decided against a free vote on the matter following a marathon six-hour joint party room meeting in Canberra on Tuesday night.
On Wednesday morning, Mr Abbott said ministers and parliamentary secretaries who voted in favour of MP Warren Entsch’s cross-party bill to legalise same-sex marriage would be demoted.
“It is nevertheless the standard position of our party that if a frontbencher cannot support the party’s policy, that person has to leave the frontbench,” Mr Abbott told ABC radio.
“Obviously our backbenchers are entitled to vote in the end, whichever way they want.
“I would be disappointed if they went against the party position but nevertheless we have always accepted that in the end all votes in our party room for backbenchers at least are conscience votes.”
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has opened the door to a plebiscite or referendum on gay marriage, insisting it should be the decision of the Australian people.
MPs were split 60/30, with the majority in favour of maintaining the coalition's position that marriage should be between a man and woman.
Mr Abbott said the deeply personal issue of same-sex marriage was one that should be decided by the Australian people, flagging the possibility of a plebiscite or constitutional referendum.
“The last thing you should do is dud the people who voted for you,” Mr Abbott said.
“Whether or not you support same-sex marriage, whether or not you support the concept of marriage which has been around since time immemorial is ... something that should be a matter for all of us rather than a matter simply for some of us.”
He confirmed this would be the last term in which the coalition party room would be bound.
But the coalition would maintain the position they took to the 2013 election for the remainder of the current parliamentary term.
Mr Abbott said the coalition’s “disposition” was that there be a plebiscite or constitutional referendum on gay marriage in the next term of Parliament.
Opinion polls have consistently found 60-70 per cent support for gay marriage.
Ninety coalition members spoke, with about two-thirds of backbenchers defending the traditional definition of marriage.
The ministry was split 50-50.
Out of the 79 Liberals who addressed the meeting, 33 spoke in favour of gay marriage or at least allowing a conscience vote despite their own personal opposition. This included 16 of 30 frontbenchers.
Senior ministers Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison were among those to argue a plebiscite was the best way forward in the long-term to resolve the gay marriage debate conclusively.
Mr Abbott said the coalition’s position on same-sex marriage was not set in stone but many MPs thought if the policy changed now many people who voted for Government at the last election would feel dudded.
"I've come to the view, I believe this is the party room view, that this is the last term in which the coalition party room can be bound," he said.
"It doesn’t matter what we did today, some people would be disappointed. But what I think I can say arising out of today is that if you support the existing definition of marriage between a man and a woman, the coalition is absolutely on your side but if you would like to see change at some time in the future, the coalition is prepared to make that potentially possible."
Cabinet’s most prominent gay marriage supporter, Malcolm Turnbull, told colleagues last night he had believed a decision on a conscience vote would be reserved for the Liberal party room. He cautioned that some frontbenchers may resign if the party’s position did not change.
A Liberal MP said Mr Abbott’s demand for the coalition to vote as a bloc on the issue had caused great irritation.
“He’s trying to impose his personal view over the party,” the MP said.
Advocacy group Australian Marriage Equality urged supporters to press ahead with legislation and for coalition members to be brave and cross the floor.
"The Abbott Government has disappointed and angered millions of Australians by deciding to remain on the wrong side of history, but momentum will only build and love will win out," national director Rodney Croome said.
"Clearly opponents of marriage equality in the coalition know they don’t have the numbers on the floor of the house or they wouldn’t be so scared of a free vote."
Liberal MP Warren Entsch conceded his cross-party bill to allow same-sex marriage, set to be introduced and debated in parliament on Monday, was doomed to fail.
Commentators and politicians alike vented their frustration on social media.
Abbott's marriage breakdown. He's let down the country, the parliament and Liberal values. #MarraigeEquality— Sarah Hanson-Young (@sarahinthesen8) August 11, 2015
In a press conference after the meeting Mr Abbott told media: "There was strong support for the existing that marriage is between a man and a woman.
"I am proud of my colleagues, regardless of what side they were on.
"This is not like any other policy.
"The party room strongly supported the current position for the duration of this term.
"It is deeply personal matter and it's a subject on which decent people can differ and people can differ even inside political parties.
"We could have a Plebiscite or a constitutional referendum in the next term of Parliament.
"If there is to be change it is something that should be decided by the people and not simply by the Parliament.
"We haven't embraced same sex marriage but we have confirmed our existing position.
"If a Private Members Bill came before the Parliament, backbenchers may exercise their conscience. There is no easy answer."
Pressure on PM over gay marriage
Tony Abbott’s leadership is again being called into question over his handling of a push from within his party to legalise gay marriage.
The Prime Minister sparked anger inside Liberal ranks this morning after he insisted the coalition as a whole should decide whether Government MPs should get a free vote on same sex marriage.
The Government announced a surprise coalition meeting for this afternoon to debate the same sex marriage issue, blindsiding Liberal members campaigning for change.
The inclusion of the more conservative Nationals in the debate is almost certain to torpedo the campaign for a free vote.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Liberal partyroom, Government frontbencher Christopher Pyne accused Mr Abbott of “branch stacking” by demanding the decision on a free vote be taken by the joint coalition partyroom and not by the Liberal party alone.
The split between Mr Pyne and Mr Abbott is being seen as significant, with the Prime Minister already under pressure in the face of continued bad polling.
Speaking later in the afternoon, Mr Abbott confirmed there had been a “brief and spirited” debate on gay marriage at the partyroom meeting.
“Apart from other parliamentary business, people will be able to focus entirely on the issue of same-sex marriage when the party room resumes this afternoon,” Mr Abbott said.
A Liberal MP said the Prime Minister’s demand the coalition vote on the issue as a block had caused huge irritation among Liberals, who strongly object to be being dictated to by Nationals.
“He’s trying to impose his personal view over the party,” one backbencher said.
Mr Abbott’s sister and gay marriage supporter, Christine Forster, took to Twitter to urge the coalition to back a conscience vote.
“The federal Coalition has an opportunity to embrace the future, not the past, and allow all to exercise their conscience on marriage,” she tweeted.
The federal Coalition has an opportunity to embrace the future, not the past, and allow all to exercise their conscience on marriage #auspol— Christine Forster (@resourcefultype) August 11, 2015