Australian PM holds crisis meeting on same-sex marriage amid leadership threats

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (Stefan Postles/Getty Images)

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is holding a crisis meeting to resolve a feud over same-sex marriage that has threatened to consume his leadership.

There is overwhelming support for equal marriage in Australia, but right-wing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has refused to permit a free vote in Parliament on the issue.

A number of pro-gay MPs from Turnbull’s Liberal Party have this week threatened to rebel against his orders, and may side with the opposition to force a vote in Parliament on a backbench marriage equality bill.

Ahead of an expected showdown, government ministers who are strongly opposed to same-sex marriage have publicly raised the possibility of a leadership challenge to oust Turnbull if he does not manage to block the bill.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull poses in front of ‘Suffren’ a Barracuda Class nuclear attack submarine in Cherbourg-Octeville, north-western France on July 9, 2017, during a visit to a naval base. / AFP PHOTO / CHARLY TRIBALLEAU (Photo credit should read CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

In a bid to salvage his government from the deepening crisis, Turnbull has called an emergency meeting for his Liberal MPs.

The party’s MPs have been summoned to the meeting in Canberra on Monday, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, where the leader will attempt to hammer out a compromise to avert the rift between factions.

According to the newspaper Turnbull will remain neutral in the discussion, which could result in a secret ballot of MPs to decide whether to maintain the party’s opposition to a Parliamentary vote on equal marriage.

Warren Ensch, a Liberal MP who is a strong supporter of equal marriage, has warned Turnbull against using the meeting to stamp out the push for equality.

He told Sky News: “Instead of being ambushed and deceived, I trust this prime minister to do the right thing and give us an opportunity to have a fair hearing on this.”

To complicate matters further, any shift within the Liberals may have to be signed off by their Coalition partners in the National Party, which remains staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage.

Turnbull’s mismanagement of the issue has been described as “terminal” and potentially “career-ending” by Liberal right-wingers, with anti-LGBT immigration minister Peter Dutton touted for a leadership challenge if Turnbull cannot maintain his authority.

With any decisive decision likely to result in serious rift or a challenge to Turnbull, it is possible the meeting could end up in an uneasy fudge – such as a mooted postal vote of Australian voters.

Liberal Senator Eric Abetz has suggested the rebellion could be a “grave matter” for the government, claiming it will have “lost its authority” if the marriage bill passes.

The anti-gay marriage Senator would not be drawn on a leadership challenge, but said: “If a government loses a procedural vote on the floor of the House because certain members deliberately vote with Labor and the Greens then that is an exceptionally grave matter.

“I think that would be an exceptionally grave matter and that is why any of my colleagues who are contemplating such action should be thinking about this, not two or three times, but a dozen times, then come to the conclusion that losing government isn’t worth it.”

The row is bitterly ironic given Mr Turnbull has long been known to be a private supporter of same-sex marriage, aside from his stance as party leader.