Australia

Liberals divided over religious protections on eve of same-sex marriage survey result

Attorney-General George Brandis says there 'will be a debate' within the Turnbull government’s ranks over the law used to legalise same-sex marriage if the nationwide postal survey returns a ‘Yes’ result tomorrow.

Two Liberal senators have released two very different bills: the moderate-backed Dean Smith bill and the James Paterson bill, favoured by conservatives.

While the long-standing Smith bill allows churches to refuse to wed same-sex couples, the Paterson bill would allow anyone with a religious or moral objection to refuse to participate in the process – including florists, bakers and musicians.

It would also mean anyone voicing or acting on a belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman would be protected from discrimination and vilification laws.

“There will be a debate about how wide the exemptions would be," Senator Brandis told Channel Nine on Tuesday.

“Some would have them narrowly cast and some more broadly cast. That's the reason we have the parliamentary debate.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has vowed to move swiftly if the Australian people vote ‘Yes’ in the poll by allowing a private member’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage.

This means rather than the government as a whole putting forward a single unified position, there could be multiple bills put to the parliament.

Reflections on the difficulties faced during same-sex marriage postal survey.
Reflections on the difficulties faced during same-sex marriage postal survey.

Labor has indicated it broadly supports the moderate Smith bill but has rubbished the Paterson bill, which possibly gives the Smith bill a better chance in the parliament.

“Australians voted for equality. They didn't vote to license more discrimination and that is what the Paterson bill does,” Labor’s Penny Wong said.

Senator Paterson said he would like the Coalition party room to weigh up the two competing bills next time they meet.

His bill has drawn mixed reaction from his colleagues.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham told Sky News he remained committed to the cross-party marriage equality bill already drafted by WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith as a starting point, and said those who wanted further religious protections should propose them as amendments rather than an alternative law.

“As we move … to remove one form of discrimination we want to make sure we don’t put in place other forms of discrimination instead,” Senator Birmingham said.

Liberal Senator Zed Seselja, who opposes same-sex marriage, said Senator Paterson's bill should get a fair hearing in the Coalition party room. Liberal MP Angus Taylor said the proposed religious exemptions were “very reasonable suggestions”.