Malcolm Turnbull faces civil war over same-sex marriage

by Phillip Coorey

Malcolm Turnbull has not ruled out allocating several millions of dollars to the cases for and against same-sex marriage in a move that would appease Coalition conservatives but anger moderates and further entrench Labor’s opposition to a national vote.

With same-sex marriage now a flashpoint for the factional tensions tearing at the Coalition, Mr Turnbull came under pressure on Monday from former prime minister Tony Abbott and his chief backers, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews, to stump up at least $10 million each for the Yes and No campaigns.

Although chances of a plebiscite being held are slim given the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team are poised to vote against legislation to establish it, and Labor is leaning towards joining them, a divided cabinet was due to discuss the matter on Monday night.

Mr Turnbull has previously been prepared to pay for the Yes and No campaign booklets but no more. He entered the cabinet meeting open-minded. The other problem is there is no formal No camp and there is resistance to giving money to the churches or  groups like the Australian Christian Lobby.

Labor leader Bill Shorten said public money should not be used to fund a campaign “of vitriol and prejudice”, saying it would heighten the suicide risk among young gay people.

“A No campaign would be an emotional torment for gay teenagers. And if one child commits suicide over the plebiscite, that is one too many.

“Achieving marriage equality should be an occasion for joy.”

Fair funding pledge

Whatever cabinet decides will be thrashed out by the Coalition party room on Tuesday.

Pressed in Parliament over claims he had promised church leaders earlier this year that there would be funding for the campaigns, Mr Turnbull would only say that if there were such funding, it would be even for both sides.

“My commitment is to ensure that the plebiscite is utterly fair. Scrupulously fair,” he said.

The plebiscite will cost voters $160 million just to stage. Labor sources said internal research showed this cost was unpopular and allocating even more for the campaigns would not only increase voter hostility, but harden Labor’s resolve towards joining the other Senate parties and blocking the establishment of the plebiscite.

Leading same-sex marriage advocate and Liberal MP Warren Entsch effectively accused Senator Abetz of lying after the latter said the party room had agreed to equal public funding when it had its rancorous six-hour debate on the issue in August 2015. Senator Abetz said each side should be given $10 million.

Senator Abetz said: “I wanted to flag my concern upfront, straight away that this idea that somehow you can have a proper plebiscite without funding for the Yes and No cases would not be the sort of plebiscite that was envisaged by the party room when we decided on it.”

Counter claims

But Mr Entsch said there had been no such discussion about public funding, let alone whether the vote should be a plebiscite or a referendum. Then prime minister Mr Abbott emerged from that meeting only promising a national vote after being ambushed by the depth of support in his party for same-sex marriage.

Mr Entsch said if the respective sides wanted funds for their arguments they should “pass the hat around”.

Liberal backbencher James Paterson, who supports gay marriage, said neither side should be given taxpayer funds for their campaigns.

“If we can’t think of a better way to spend taxpayers’ money, we’re not doing our jobs,” he said.

Mr Andrews backed claims by church leaders that Mr Turnbull had promised equal funding at a meeting in

February.

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