The decision by Julian Leeser, who has resigned from the opposition front bench to campaign for a yes vote on the Voice to Parliament, is both principled and pragmatic.
On principle, because in politics we rarely see people make a significant personal sacrifice for their faith.
Being a shadow minister for Indigenous Australians and shadow attorney general is a long way from being a minister. Still, it takes a lot of political courage to take the backseat and challenge your party’s overwhelming opinion on a critical issue.
Who knows what will happen along the way – various circumstances could allow Leeser’s political career to flourish again. But as of now, he has been willing to strike a blow at his own chances for future advancement.
His position is pragmatic because, as the saying goes, he has not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
The man who received a copy of the Australian constitution for his tenth birthday is obsessively picky about that document. He considers that the wording of the question proposed by the Albanian government for the referendum is flawed. In particular, he believes that the new provision would be vulnerable to legal challenge.
He will try to change it. It is currently under investigation by a parliamentary committee. But he knows that significant change is extremely unlikely. However, that won’t stop him from campaigning for a yes vote – because he believes the greater cause is more important.
As he said on Tuesday:
I believe that by empowering people and building institutions that bring responsibility and decision-making closer to the people, we are more likely to shift the dial to Indigenous health, education, housing, security and economic opportunity.
One of several reasons Leeser will be an asset to the ‘yes’ cause is that he is personally close to leading Labor figures on the Voice, most notably Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney and Patrick Dodson. He has spent the last few years working with Dodson (who is currently on indefinite sick leave) for constitutional recognition and a voice.
Leeser’s personal position is somewhat similar to that of conservative legal academic Greg Craven, who has also long dealt with these issues. Craven also dislikes the wording, but says he will vote yes (although he is not campaigning).
Leeser’s entry into the yes cause is a relief to Anthony Albanese and a huge blow to Peter Dutton. For the opposition leader, the situation is diabolical.
Several prominent liberals across the country are already on the “yes” side, and you’d expect more to emerge.
Dutton’s parliamentary party strongly opposes the Voice (with a few stated exceptions). But some frontbenchers will not want to campaign for the ‘no’ cause because it does not represent their true position or because of political prudence.
Whether campaigning or not, shadow ministers are bound by party decision. So how will the shy people handle invitations to community forums leading up to the vote? They can only plead “another engagement” so many times.
The most prominent liberal moderate, Simon Birmingham, who is the leader of the opposition in the Senate, is in a particularly difficult situation.
Meanwhile, Dutton is to fill the roles of Shadow Attorney General and Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, which Leeser had held.
He needs someone with a law degree for the shadow attorney general position. He could split the portfolios, although that wouldn’t be ideal, as the no campaign will rely partly on legal issues. Paul Fletcher has legal qualifications and, like Leeser, is from New South Wales, so could be a potential candidate for the position of shadow attorney general. But the native position would not suit Fletcher, a moderate.
Read more: Grattan on Friday: The high cost of the Liberals’ vote rejection – for both Peter Dutton and the party
The now chaotic situation in the Liberal Party comes after the massive rejection of Aston voters in the recent by-election – and the Voice wasn’t even on the radar there.
In other circumstances, the leader’s position would be jeopardized. That is currently not the case. The problem is actually more serious.
Aston’s posts and van Leeser’s point of view on The Voice go to something much deeper: how the Liberal Party is out of sync on many fronts with significant segments of the modern Australian electorate, especially those under 40. (This point stands regardless of the result of the referendum.) Getting back in touch will require a major overhaul of the party’s approach and there is little sign it is up to the task.
Leeser on Tuesday succinctly explained the challenge to the “yes” case on the Voice, saying Australians who were still unconvinced fell into three groups.
The first group are those who oppose the Voice – on philosophical and constitutional grounds.
The second group are those who support The Voice in principle – or want to support it – but who in the vast majority of cases have genuine doubts and questions about the government’s proposal.
And the third group has yet to participate, but they also have questions and concerns.
Can the ‘yes’ campaign convince enough people from these groups, especially from groups two and three, for the necessary majority of the national vote and the majority of the states?
Impossible to know at this stage. But some voters will certainly be reassured that such a prudent, conservative figure as Leeser, who has demonstrated personal integrity, allows them to vote “yes” and not be too afraid of the consequences.