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Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi has resigned as Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's personal parliamentary secretary following a widespread furore over the South Australian's comments that legislating for gay marriage could lead to demands to legalise bestiality and polygamy.
Resigned position ... Senator Cory Bernardi. Photo: Andrew Meares
In announcing Senator Bernardi's resignation, Mr Abbott said his contribution to the same-sex marriage debate was unwelcome.
"They are views that I don't share. They are views that many people will find repugnant," Mr Abbott said.
The Senate debate on a same-sex marriage bill sponsored by four Labor senators continues today, but a vote on a separate same-sex marriage bill introduced by Labor MP Stephen Jones was defeated in the lower house this afternoon, 42 votes to 98.
In a short statement, Senator Bernardi - who left for overseas earlier today - said his decision to resign was made "in the interests of the Coalition".
"My focus is now on directing my time and energy to representing the people of South Australia as a Liberal senator," he said.
Mr Abbott said Senator Bernardi had made "ill-disciplined comments" in the Senate overnight and "had compounded the offence by repeating the comments on radio this morning".
"I had a conversation [with Senator Bernardi this morning] and as a result of that conversation he offered his resignation," he said.
Mr Abbott described Senator Bernardi as a talented politician with "a lot to contribute" but said he would need to do a "lot of political penance".
Mr Abbott said he thought it was important to act swiftly on the issue and send a message to his team that "ill-discipline" was unacceptable.
He said he was determined to present a "strong and disciplined alternative government".
Labor and the Greens had called on Mr Abbott to sack Senator Bernardi after his remarks.
Mr Abbott announced he would appoint two members of his team to fill Senator Bernardi's portfolio responsibilities.
Former chief of staff to John Howard turned senator Arthur Sinodinos will step in as shadow parliamentary secretary while South Australian MP Jamie Briggs will serve as shadow parliamentary secretary for families.
Mr Briggs heads the Coalition's "Waste Watch" program, which is designed to highlight instances of unnecessary government spending. He will continue in the role.
Senator Sinodinos will also continue as the chairman of the Coalition's Deregulation Taskforce along with his new responsibilities.
Mr Abbott said Senator Bernardi's effective sacking would not change his mind on the opposition's stance to oppose same-sex marriage.
"While I have consistently advocated a position that the Coalition should keep its recent election commitment to maintain marriage as a union between a man and a woman, I will not tolerate comments that are offensive to people in same-sex relationships," he said.
"While the Coalition has a policy position not to support changes to the Marriage Act, the Coalition has a proud history of opposition to discrimination in any form and as Leader of the Opposition, I will not have this record undermined."
Mr Abbott said he had been concerned when he was informed about the comments made in the Senate but after Senator Bernardi appeared on a radio program, "I swiftly concluded it was one mistake too many."
"I've known Cory for a long time. He is a decent bloke with strong opinions. But discipline [and] team play [are] vital," he said.
Senator Bernardi has regularly courted controversy, most notably with his commentary on Islam and multiculturalism. In 2010, Senator Bernardi was reprimanded by Mr Abbott when he called for Australia to follow the lead of France and ban the burqa, describing it as "the most public symbol of fundamentalist Islam".
In a regular internet blog, the South Australian senator said there were supporters of fundamentalist Islam who wanted to impose sharia law in Australia.
"This is a system where women are considered as second-class citizens and homosexuals can be hanged," Senator Bernardi said.
"Why then are there defenders of what I consider the most public symbol of fundamentalist Islam in Australia - the face-covering veil?
In an interview with The Age in April, the Opposition Leader said he had "jumped on Bernardi" after the South Australian senator made anti-Muslim remarks in February.