Australian PM’s move to block a free vote on same-sex unions intensifies doubts about his judgment

Prime Minister ’s move to block a free vote on same-sex unions in has divided government lawmakers, intensifying doubts about his judgment six months after he survived a leadership challenge.

Abbott effectively killed off chances of marriage equality until after next year’s elections, as two-thirds of coalition lawmakers supported his demand they vote as a bloc against such unions. But the six-hour debate exposed a divide even among Cabinet members.

“Abbott’s position is weaker now than it was just a few days ago,” said Haydon Manning, a politics professor at Flinders University in Adelaide. “He’s shored up his political base but at the cost of creating a noisy split in the ranks that may overwhelm his main message of being able to deliver good government.”

Abbott’s opposition to same-sex marriage, which has sparked criticism from his gay sister Christine Forster, puts him at odds with voters, with a poll last year showing almost three- quarters of Australian voters want the law to be changed. The main opposition Labor Party, which has an election winning lead in opinion polls, is pledging to allow its lawmakers a free vote on marriage equality legislation.

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“If you support the existing definition of marriage between a man and a woman, the coalition is absolutely on your side,” Abbott, 57, told reporters late Tuesday after the closed-door debate.

The former trainee Jesuit priest, who in 2010 said he felt “a bit threatened” by homosexuality, said Wednesday it was his “strong disposition” to let the public decide on the issue in a referendum in the next term of government.

Australia has become increasingly isolated among English- speaking nations on same-sex marriage. Ireland backed marriage equality in a May referendum and the U.S. Supreme Court in June recognized same-sex unions; Abbott’s conservative allies in U.K. and New Zealand, leaders David Cameron and John Key, support marriage equality.

Abbott’s unwillingness to compromise on the issue shows an innate conservatism that’s at odds with the majority of Australians, said political analyst Zareh Ghazarian.

“While he’s won this round, he won’t feel comfortable that the divisions in his government on this issue have been made public,” said Ghazarian, a Melbourne-based professor at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry.

The method in which Abbott handled the matter has left his party divided, the Australian Financial Review reported, citing party sources it didn’t identify. Tuesday’s debate was bitter, with some lawmakers demanding the resignation of ministers, such as former party leader Malcolm Turnbull, who support same-sex marriage, according to the report.

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty ImagesPETER PARKS/AFP/Getty ImagesSupporters of same-sex marriage shouting slogans as they take part a rally and march in Sydney.

Turnbull, who is communications minister, told reporters Wednesday that allowing a free vote would have brought the issue to a head within weeks. Instead, it would drag on as a distraction until the election and beyond, he said.

Two years into the government’s first term, the coalition is languishing eight points behind Labor in the most recent opinion poll. The economy, over-reliant on commodity exports to China as prices tumble, is slowing, with unemployment matching an almost 13-year high.

Abbott suffered a blow when his conservative ally Bronwyn Bishop was forced to resign this month as Speaker of the lower house amid allegations she misused travel entitlements. The prime minister faced criticism for allowing the issue to drag on amid weeks of damaging newspaper headlines — again raising questions about his political judgment.

Almost 40 percent of Abbott’s Liberal lawmakers voted in February for his removal as unflagged and unpopular spending cuts hit the government’s ratings. The disaffection was brought to a head by Abbott’s decision to bestow a knighthood on Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip.

There were about 34,000 same-sex couples in Australia in 2011, government figures show. The biggest concentration is in the largest city Sydney, which has hosted the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras since 1978 and is regarded as the San Francisco of the South Pacific.

It now seems inevitable that same-sex unions will be an election issue, said Australian Marriage Equality National Director Rodney Croome.

“The Abbott government has disappointed and angered millions of Australians by deciding to remain on the wrong side of history,” Croome said in an e-mailed statement. ‘Momentum will only build and love will win out.”

About Jason Scott, Bloomberg News