Julian Leeser frontbench resignation divides Liberal Party further

The fundamental precedent is the way a Liberal government under John Howard allowed a conscience vote on the republic in the referendum of 1999. The same approach should have been taken here because conscience votes act as a safety valve – releasing internal pressure before a party cracks. Howard used them again on abortion and other issues.

Dutton argued last Wednesday that the Voice should not be a conscience vote because it was a bigger change than the republic. Howard told The Australian it should not be a conscience vote because it was not as big a change as the republic. There is no logic to this break with the obvious precedent – only a stubborn refusal by conservatives to let their party breathe.

No frontbencher has resigned on a point of principle in this way in a generation or more. Leeser has shown a strength of character that transcends party politics. Nobody should shrug this off because they dislike Liberals or disagree with Leeser’s concerns about the wording of the Voice. There are real consequences for his decision: lower salary, the cold shoulder from some of his colleagues, a lower chance of a cabinet ministry one day in the future, the possibility of a preselection challenge. It is an immense career risk.

By rights, however, Leeser should be restored to a leadership position in the future not only because he has shown personal integrity but because he offers an alternative to Dutton’s path to defeat.

As Liberal MP Bridget Archer has warned, the Liberals will be rejected by the Australian majority at elections unless they find real issues to fight on rather than conservative culture wars.


The Indigenous Voice has majority support and Dutton has positioned the Liberals too far to the right, as the Liberal defeat in the Aston byelection showed.

Leeser, with his concern about some of the wording of the Voice amendment but his support for the reform nonetheless, is likely to be vindicated as being more in touch with the wider community than his leader.

So much for Dutton’s political prowess. It is a rare feat to force a colleague’s resignation on principle. There is no question that Dutton is weakened by this resignation, but this does not mean his campaign against the Voice can be dismissed. He can still galvanise opponents of the Voice while presiding over a divided party.

The question for other Liberals is whether any will follow Leeser? A substantial move would spell the end of Dutton’s leadership because it would prove his inability to lead a united political movement to the next election.


The Indigenous Voice has the potential to advance reconciliation in a way that has not been achieved in more than a generation. No change of this kind happens without opposition and the Voice will be strongly resisted at the referendum later this year.

Yet the objections offered by Dutton, as the leading personal critic of the reform, have demonstrated politics at its most cynical and least principled.

In resigning, Leeser has just proven to Australians that a politician can act on personal belief with integrity and honour. In forcing that resignation, Dutton has just reminded Australians there is no limit to political stubbornness and, ultimately, foolishness.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

Source link