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Leeser stance is a setback for Dutton’s leadership

Leeser quits Liberals to campaign for Indigenous Voice

Shadow attorney-general Julian Leeser has delivered a hammer blow to Peter Dutton’s authority as leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party on the very issue he had planned to unify it around.

Mr Leeser, who was also the Coalition spokesman on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, said he on Tuesday that he could not continue in either role for reasons of principle.

“I’m resigning without rancour but on a point of principle,” he said.

“I want to be able to say to my children that [their] father stood up for something that he believes in.

“That’s really important, and that’s what all of us as parliamentarians should do.”

Backfire

Mr Leeser said the decision did not reflect on the Opposition Leader nor the Liberal Party. But, coming as it did, less than one week after Mr Dutton sought to rally the party behind him and in opposition to the Voice referendum, it has done both.

Mr Dutton could not conceal signs of anger after Mr Leeser relayed the news, first on social media and then to reporters in Sydney.

The decision, Mr Dutton said, reflected Mr Leeser’s “unique” personal circumstances (the lawyer and author has been prominent in the campaign to develop an Indigenous Voice for more than a decade.)

He also suggested that attacks on Mr Leeser for making statements critical of the government’s position on the Voice had worn him down.

“I think it is proper that people including the Prime Minister should apologise to Julian Leeser,” Mr Dutton said.

“He has gone through a process in our party and his position is at odds with the overwhelming majority of the Liberal Party members in our party room.”

Mr Leeser conspicuously did not endorse Mr Dutton’s opposition of the Voice, which is seen as deeply problematic by other prominent members of the Liberal Party.

Though Mr Leeser was not by his leader’s side after the party room meeting last week firstly because of Passover and then a family holiday, the message was clear and should have been read by Mr Dutton before proceeding.

Mr Dutton’s decision to actively front and campaign against the Voice, when key frontbenchers – and the source of the alternative government’s credibility – noted that the referendum was still before a parliamentary committee was a major problem from the outset.

It also made many members of his party room who had principled reasons for opposing the establishment of an advisory body squeamish about seeing the party associated with a ‘no’ camp that many worried would be perceived as working against multiculturalism.

Unresolved contradictions

Another senior Liberal, Karen Andrews – who will vote no – said on Tuesday she was not prepared to “go out with the words ‘No’ emblazoned on a shirt”.

There is not much in Mr Dutton’s stance even for those who, like Ms Andrews, are wary of constitutional change from first principles or decry the addition of “another layer of bureaucracy”.

The Liberals have been asking them to instead endorse a series of local and regional bodies described by the nation’s leading constitutional scholar, Anne Twomey, as a “recipe for chaos”.

These contradictions are the result of Mr Dutton’s attempt to avoid being seen as reflexively negative. But most of all, it is a stance according to a timetable that suited his need to restore his flagging leadership after the Liberal Party’s historic loss in the Aston by-election.

By binding these frontbenchers to a position they were at most ambivalent about, Mr Dutton hands ammunition to those who, like Pauline Hanson, will seek to pick off party moderates such as  Simon Birmingham, who said he would leave the campaign to those with the “strongest feeling”.

“Like Mr Leeser, Senator Birmingham should go too,” Senator Hanson said.

Whether he does or not remains to be seen, but similar questions will resurface until they are answered.

The effect of every future equivocation or refusal to endorse the Opposition Leader’s stance will echo much more loudly now that Mr Leeser has staked out this point of principle.

The effect will be the opposite of everything Mr Dutton had hoped.

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