The Morrison government has shelved its contentious religious discrimination bill, dumping a central pledge from the last federal election.
Debate on the package was expected in the Senate on Thursday, after it passed the lower house in a marathon debate that finished just before 5am.
But a motion required to give approval for the bills to be debated so soon after they were introduced for consideration failed to pass the Senate on Thursday.
While a further motion could be moved later in the day, it is thought unlikely, with the Coalition saying it had advice from the Solicitor-General suggesting amendments made to the bill could have unintended consequences.
The Coalition was also briefing journalists on Thursday that the bill was unlikely to return for debate when the Senate next sits in March. That would allow clear air to debate the federal budget to be handed down on March 29 – ahead of a likely May election.
Thursday’s abrupt ditching of one of the Morrison government’s key 2019 election pledges came after the Coalition launched last-minute talks with stakeholders to determine the future of the bill after five Liberal MPs crossed the floor to make amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act.
Liberal MPs Trent Zimmerman, Bridget Archer, Fiona Martin, Katie Allen and David Sharma all voted in support of a Labor amendment to the legislation.
Government senators had indicated they would move to overturn the amendments in the upper house, claiming they changed the nature of the original bill.
Assistant Attorney-General Amanda Stoker said the Coalition had spoken with several groups after the package of legislation was altered.
“We are really intent on honouring commitments we made to multicultural groups and religious groups and LGBTI groups in the consultation process,” she told Sky News.
“We’re checking in with them, trying to make sure we fully appreciate the implications of that amendment before we have to deal with it in the Senate.”
Senator Stoker said the amended bill was flawed.
“It’s not what the government designed,” she said.
“It’s not what we thought had got the balance right.”
Asked if there was a chance nothing would end up passing parliament, she said: “That is, always in a parliamentary process, an option.”
Australian Christian Lobby national director of politics Wendy Francis said the bill should be withdrawn due to the changed position.
She said the lobby had been in touch with all government senators.
“The rights of religious schools in this country will be significantly diminished if this passes,” she said.
“Taking away protections for Christian schools is a price too high to pay for the passage of the religious discrimination bill.”
LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Australia has called for the Senate to approve amendments preventing existing anti-discrimination laws being overridden.
Mr Zimmerman said his decision to vote against the government was a matter of conscience.
“[Supporting the amendments] would be a bad signal to send to the transgender community,” he told ABC Radio.
“It’s hard to cross the floor and people feel passionately about these issues.”