Former prime minister John Howard is doing his best for the No campaign in the same-sex postal vote.
Former prime minister John Howard is doing his best for the No campaign in the same-sex postal vote. DANIEL MUNOZ

Howard attacks PM over marriage vote

JOHN Howard's claim the Turnbull government is "washing its hands of any responsibility” on gay marriage has been rejected by a key minister as the row deepens.

Cabinet minister Christopher Pyne said "of course” the government wasn't washing it hands of its responsibility, as Mr Howard had asserted.

"We will protect the freedom of speech of people and of course the rights of people to choose whether they do or don't marry couples,” he told the Nine Network yesterday.

Mr Pyne said Mr Howard was allowed to campaign in the debate as much as anybody else.

"It is not a question of John Howard v Malcolm Turnbull, or anybody else quite frankly, it is whether people believe that two people who love each other should be able to get married,” he said.

While Tony Abbott has backed Mr Howard's intervention, senior Coalition conservatives including Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann have not responded to the attack.

The former prime minister attacked Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday and called on him to explain what steps would be taken to protect parental rights, freedom of speech and religious freedom in the event of same-sex marriage becoming law.

Mr Howard said protections for religious freedom needed to be spelled out before the end of the postal survey.

"Leaving it as something to be taken up only in the event of a Yes vote prevailing is the equivalent of saying that it does not matter,” he said in a statement.

"If a Yes vote is recorded there will be overwhelming pressure to move on, legislate as quickly as possible, and then put the issue behind parliament.

"There will be scant opportunity for serious consideration of protections.

"Very likely, those raising such matters will be met with a chorus of put-downs, and accused of attempting to frustrate the verdict of the people.

"The case for these protections is compelling given the experience of other countries such as the UK, US and Canada, in the wake of ... changing their marriage laws.”

Mr Howard said freedom of religion and freedom of speech were at risk.

"Thus far, the government's response has been to wash its hands of any responsibility, merely stating that it will facilitate a private member's bill,” he said.

"On the evidence to date, it would seem that the only protections in that bill will not go much beyond stipulations that no minister, priest, rabbi or imam will be compelled to perform a same sex marriage ceremony.

"The shadow attorney- general, Mark Dreyfus, has already said Labor will examine the exemptions from certain provisions of anti-discrimination legislation now enjoyed by religious bodies. It is already Greens policy to remove them.

Mr Howard said it was "completely disingenuous” to say the marriage law change would not have other consequences.

Staff writers