Tony Abbott should tell us before the election whether he will allow a conscience vote on marriage equality. In the leaders’ debate on 11 August, he said "We had a vote in the national parliament about a year ago. It was fairly decisive against same-sex marriage. If this issue were to come up again in the future, it would be a matter for a future party room to determine."
How exactly will the "party room" decide this? Who actually decides whether Coalition MPs and Senators get a conscience vote on any issue? Is Abbott just referring to a party room decision to avoid having to make a commitment to allow a conscience vote?
The Coalition party room did not make such decisions under John Howard. There were five conscience votes during his time as Prime Minister: the Euthanasia Bill (1996), the Stem Cell Bill and the Cloning Bill (2002), the RU486 Bill (2005), and the Therapeutic Cloning Bill (2006). In each case Howard decided whether a conscience vote would be allowed, although at least in the case of the RU486 Bill he came under some backbench pressure to do so.
Laurie Oakes wrote in the Bulletin on 28 February 2006 that "Howard decides when Coalition MP's are permitted to have a conscience vote and all hell breaks loose when someone follows his conscience without permission". Abbott has not said that he will allow the party room generally to decide conscience vote issues, which would be contrary to Liberal Party practice.
A closely related issue is that MPs are generally reluctant to go against the leader's personal view on an issue even when he has allowed a conscience vote. Abbott always refers to his personal opposition to marriage equality, although he toned it down in the leaders’ debate. In May he indicated he didn't have "much enthusiasm" to revisit the issue.
He said that "It will ultimately be a matter for the post-election party room if it comes up, but I am strongly opposed to any change and I imagine that a strong majority in the Coalition party room will remain opposed." Abbott was just as negative when he told Sydney Radio 2SM in answer to a question about gay marriage on 14 August that "I'm not someone who wants to see radical change based on the fashion of the moment." (He later said he was "he was speaking more broadly about social change".)
So if the party room discusses this issue, all those ambitious Liberal backbenchers will be very aware that Abbott, who if he wins the election will be all-powerful, does not want the issue to move forward. People who care about this issue have a last opportunity now to insist that the Opposition leader commit to a conscience vote – after the election it will be too late.
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