Members of the Abbott cabinet are openly critical of the way the prime minister has handled the same-sex marriage issue.
After a six-hour meeting of the Liberal and National parties on Tuesday, Tony Abbott declared coalition MPs would not be given a free vote on a bill to be introduced next week.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who favours gay marriage, says a free vote is “consistent with Liberal Party tradition”.
“It would have meant the matter would be resolved in this parliament, one way or another, in a couple of weeks,” Mr Turnbull told reporters on Wednesday.
And he fears the issue will continue to distract the political debate.
Leaving it unresolved beyond the 2016 election will mean the coalition will have less time to talk about the economy, jobs and innovation, he said.
Mr Turnbull also talked down the idea of a plebiscite, which Mr Abbott has raised as a way to resolve the issue after the next election.
“That is a policy as yet unformed, but it will presumably have to go through the normal cabinet process before it is fleshed out,” he said.
Mr Abbott said it is open to coalition backbenchers to cross the floor on a cross-party bill co-sponsored by Liberal MP Warren Entsch – which will come to the parliament next Monday – but he had a warning for ministers.
“It is the standard position of our party that if a frontbencher cannot support the party’s policy, that person has to leave the front bench,” he said.
Those in favour and those against the law change should accept the result of a plebiscite, he said.
Mr Turnbull, Christopher Pyne, Josh Frydenberg and George Brandis and about a dozen other frontbenchers sought a free vote on the bill.
However, about two-thirds of the coalition party room rallied behind Mr Abbott’s view that marriage laws should not be changed in this term of parliament.
The numbers against a free vote were bolstered by most of the 21 Nationals MPs and senators.
Mr Pyne said the discussion should have only involved Liberal MPs, as the Nationals had already taken a view on a free vote.
“It was a decision that the Liberal Party should make without the National Party being present,” he said.
Mr Entsch – who has Labor, independent and Greens backing for his bill – said there will be at least a “handful” of coalition MPs who will vote for the bill.
But it did not have the numbers to succeed.
Mr Entsch met with Mr Abbott on Wednesday morning and was told he could help draft election policy on the issue.
Deputy Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce told reporters the move to allow a free vote would have been defeated even if the Liberals voted on their own.
“It’s important this boil be lanced,” he said of the value of a plebiscite.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said there will be a clear choice at the next election.
“You either have Mr Abbott (as prime minister) or you have marriage equality – you can’t have both,” he said.
Mr Abbott said the Entsch bill will be treated in the same way as other private member’s legislation – which rarely proceed to a vote.