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Parliamentary support for same-sex marriage reform appears to have reached critical mass and for the first time could pass in both houses, placing renewed pressure on Malcolm Turnbull to grant a free vote, rather than spend millions of dollars organising a non-binding public plebiscite.
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Numbers shift on same-sex marriage
The promised plebiscite on same-sex marriage may be overtaken by events with claims a parliamentary majority now support marriage equality. Analysis with Mark Kenny.
Mr Turnbull has promised conservative colleagues he will honour the plebiscite compromise put forward by Tony Abbott despite his own preference for a free parliamentary vote.
According to the key lobby group leading the charge for a broadened definition of marriage in the Marriage Act, Australian Marriage Equality, there is now a slim majority of pro-change MPs in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate.
"We're confident the numbers are there for marriage equality to pass both houses of federal Parliament right now if a free vote is granted to Coalition members," said the group's director, Rodney Croome, arguing it meant there was "no need for an expensive and divisive plebiscite".
The claimed majority is a function of the reduced influence of the former prime minister within the Liberal Party, since the September 14 change. But a number of Labor MPs have also softened their opposition over the last year.
AME's assessment puts support for a broadening of the definition of marriage, at a conservative 76 in the 150-member House, and at 41 in the 76-seat Senate. And it says its talks with several others suggests they too were leaning towards change, if given a free vote.
The slender majorities include those who have publicly switched in the last year - from both sides of the political aisle.
Fairfax Media has obtained the list, which includes 72 MPs who are on the record as supportive, and six more, who the group says have "confidentially" flagged their intentions.
"A handful of the politicians we are counting towards a majority have yet to declare their support but we're confident from the private conversations they've had with us, local campaigners or party officials that they will vote for marriage equality," Mr Croome said.
Fairfax Media was unable to independently verify those claims.
As part of his deal to secure leadership, Mr Turnbull agreed to retain Mr Abbott's timetable for a post-election plebiscite at a date still to be fixed following the next election. However, Mr Turnbull himself is an outspoken supporter of marriage equality, and favoured a swift resolution to avoid political distractions.
"As you may have seen I have expressed the view a plebiscite should be before the next election," Mr Turnbull wrote on August 16 in a blog describing the issues as "very important".
"My own view ... is that it would be better if same-sex marriage were not a contentious issue at the next election - there are sincere, conscientious differences of opinion throughout the community and on both sides of the political divide and issues like this are better dealt with outside of the frenzied hurly-burly of an election campaign.
"An election campaign is about 35 days - I would rather spend every single one of them talking about economic management, how we ensure Australia's prosperity, how our free trade agreements will drive prosperity, how we are promoting innovation, technology and science and so on."
"The majority is slim but support for marriage equality never goes backwards and is likely to increase during a parliamentary vote with both Turnbull and Shorten in support," Mr Croome said.
While Mr Abbott had argued in favour of the future plebiscite in a bid to neutralise the issue in the short term, debate showing no sign of abating as the election year gathers pace.
This week, two prominent social conservatives, Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi, indicated they would not vote in Parliament to legalise same-sex marriage even if the popular vote backed the change. That raised fresh questions about the purpose of the vote, which is expected to cause significant disruption, strain government unity, and cost taxpayers as much as $160 million. And as Fairfax Media revealed on Monday, Mr Abbott flew to the US this week to address a conservative Christian group on the importance of the traditional family and the institution of marriage.
Asked about the plebiscite on Friday, Mr Turnbull was emphatic, declaring the people's verdict would be reflected "absolutely".
"The Coalition party room, this is when Mr Abbott was prime minister, made a decision that the matter would be put to the people, that the people would decide.
"It's perfectly democratic. There will be a plebiscite. That's our policy ... if the majority of people voting in the plebiscite vote in favour of it, then same-sex marriage will be legalised."