When Julian Leeser spoke at the National Press Club last week, he had no idea Peter Dutton was going to fix the Liberal Party’s position on the Voice. In the days afterwards he decided he had no choice but to quit the frontbench. By Karen Middleton.

Inside story: How Peter Dutton set up the ‘No’ vote

Peter Dutton at a press conference with an Australia flag behind him.
Peter Dutton speaking at a press conference on the Voice.
Credit: Facebook

On the Monday morning after the Aston byelection, Peter Dutton held his weekly phone hook-up with the parliamentary Liberal Party’s leadership group. The opposition leader told those on the call he planned to convene a party-room meeting in two days’ time, to address the proposal to enshrine an Indigenous Voice in the constitution.

He had waited until Aston was over – albeit with a worse result than anticipated – but had made it known before then that he wanted it dealt with quickly so speculation didn’t drag on into budget season.

Julian Leeser wasn’t part of that group and wasn’t on the call. By the time the then shadow minister for Indigenous Australians and shadow attorney-general arrived to address the National Press Club on the proposed Voice four hours later, he was aware the meeting had been called.

Just after 11.30am, an email had gone out from the whip’s office, telling all Liberal MPs and senators that they were required back in Canberra for a party-room meeting. The email was headed “URGENT” but did not specify what the meeting would cover.

By the time Leeser stood up to speak at 12.30pm, he knew it was about the Voice. But he still didn’t know the meeting was going to fix the party’s final position on the proposed constitutional change, and that the position would be “No”.

Leeser is arguably the Liberal MP most invested in seeing a Voice referendum succeed. He has worked quietly for a decade alongside Indigenous advocate Noel Pearson and others, helping to craft a proposal that would be acceptable to constitutional conservatives in his party and achieve the bipartisan support seen as crucial to a referendum’s success. He has spoken consistently on how a Voice could herald much-needed change for Indigenous people in Australia. He is deeply, personally committed.

In his prepared address at the National Press Club that Monday, Leeser criticised what he said was the Albanese government’s decision to stop consulting the Coalition on the Voice proposal in the wake of last year’s election and instead present a take-it-or-leave-it form of words for constitutional change. He described what he said were Peter Dutton’s efforts to hear the various views and grapple with the issues. Later, he would insist Dutton had approached it with an open mind, although other colleagues say they have seen little evidence of that.

Leeser called for changes to the proposal, removing references to “executive government” and making “representations”. But he vowed to support enshrining a Voice constitutionally. He also revealed a Wednesday meeting was planned.

During questions after the speech, Leeser was asked if the meeting would finalise the Liberals’ position. He suggested it would not. “I think the party room will look at these issues,” he said. “I don’t think people should assume that we will have a completely concluded position on things on Wednesday.”

A special multiparty joint select committee had been established to examine the Voice proposal. It was due to report back by May 15. Unknown to Leeser, however, Dutton had decided not to wait for it.

The party room was about to conclude its position. The man whose twin portfolios covered the Voice had been left to give a nationally televised address on the subject without being told.

The next day, Leeser had a meeting with Dutton. A week on, as he announced his resignation, he would describe in general terms what happened.

“It was clear on the day before shadow cabinet and the party-room meeting last week that I was in a different position to a majority of my colleagues,” Leeser explained on Tuesday this week.

When the Liberals met in their party room the previous Wednesday, Leeser sat silent. Usually, ahead of a policy decision, the relevant portfolio shadow minister would introduce the issue and explain the proposition. This time, Dutton did it.

Someone asked if Leeser was going to speak. Dutton turned to him as if to check. He shook his head and said nothing.

A three-point summary of the proposed resolution was circulated. It said the parliamentary Liberal Party would oppose a constitutionally enshrined Voice. Second, it would support constitutional recognition of Indigenous people. Third, it would support legislated Local and Regional Voice bodies, feeding into a national Voice also to be set in legislation. The meeting endorsed all three parts, by overwhelming majority.

But when Dutton gave a news conference after the two-hour meeting, that last element – the national Voice – had vanished. Instead, he decried the concept of a “Canberra Voice”.

“The Liberal Party resolved today to say ‘Yes’ to constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, ‘Yes’ to a local and regional body so that we can get practical outcomes for Indigenous people on the ground, but there was a resounding ‘No’ to the prime minister’s Canberra Voice,” Dutton said. “Having a Canberra Voice is not going to resolve the issues in Indigenous communities.”

His deputy Sussan Ley emphasised the positive. “Today is not a ‘No’ from the Liberal Party,” she said. “It’s a day of many ‘Yeses’.”

Ley also did not mention a legislated national Voice – a key element of what Liberal MPs and senators thought they had just endorsed.

These omissions would prompt other Liberals to ask what was going on. Some felt they had been duped. Those who had gone out and insisted publicly after the meeting that the Liberals were in favour of a national Voice – just not in the constitution – would have to walk back their remarks.

After Ley finished speaking, and before he called for questions, Dutton dropped in an incidental explanation for his shadow minister’s absence.

“I should have mentioned in my remarks: Julian’s had to head back to Sydney for Passover, so he’s on a flight out already, I think,” Dutton said. “Now, who would like to start? We’ve got plenty of time.”

Leeser was not there because he didn’t support what was happening. After the previous day’s conversation, and the party-room meeting, he and Dutton had agreed he would take the Easter long weekend to consider his position. Leeser is Jewish and went home to be with his family for the holiday.

The former minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, did not need to think anything over. No longer in parliament, he announced in Perth he had quit the Liberal Party in protest at its “No” decision. This week, he appeared alongside his Labor successor, Linda Burney, campaigning for “Yes”.

On Tuesday morning, Julian Leeser called a news conference and announced his resignation from the shadow cabinet. He said it was a matter of principle.

“In politics, you have to have some lines in the sand,” Leeser told Sky News later. “You have to stand for some things. And for me, this was something I stood for.”

Leeser said he wanted to be able to tell his children that sometimes defending your beliefs required hard choices. This was clearly one.

He resigned because Dutton had decreed that while Liberal backbenchers would be free to oppose their party’s position, frontbenchers would not. That meant no frontbencher who supported the Voice was allowed to openly advocate for it any longer.

That decision – and Leeser’s resignation – has exposed deep divisions in the Liberal Party. They threaten to extend beyond the issues around the Voice, to questions of leadership and judgement.

The edict that forced Leeser’s choice now puts other moderates under pressure to follow, including Simon Birmingham, Paul Fletcher and Marise Payne.

Some Liberals say privately that another frontbench resignation would shift the focus of the issue to Dutton’s leadership. They note that multiple resignations normally herald instability.

“They’re usually used to precipitate a leadership contest,” one says. But there is no obvious challenger.

The pressure is greatest on senate leader and shadow Foreign minister Simon Birmingham, the Liberals’ most senior moderate.

“That’s … not my intention,” Birmingham said when asked on Sky News on Wednesday if he, too, would quit. “My intention is to respect the Australian people who will go about this referendum applying their judgement to the issues that are before them at the time.”

Birmingham’s reluctance to actively endorse the party position prompted a conservative South Australian colleague, Senator Alex Antic, to demand his resignation.

“The party’s position is to vote ‘No’,” Antic said. “I think if that is to be Simon’s position, then I really do think this makes his position as opposition leader in the senate and a frontbencher fairly untenable.”

Antic has campaigned since the federal election loss last year to rid the South Australian Liberal Party of moderate influences. He wants the party to shift to the right.

“The dominance of the left in the Liberal Party now needs to end,” Antic said two days after the election. “That time needs to be over. The Liberal Party should be the home for conservatives. We have got to provide a suitable and strong voice for conservative Australians, quiet Australians and indeed the members of parliament that want to represent them. The Liberal Party structure is not broken, it just needs to get back to what it was doing back in the Howard era.”

On Thursday, Birmingham posted a lengthy statement on his Facebook page, reiterating that he would neither campaign actively nor resign and noting the party’s internal differences on the Voice.

“These differences are why I would have preferred a free vote on this proposal, consistent with our party position on the last two national votes (marriage equality and a republic),” he wrote. “But the majority of the Liberal Partyroom disagreed.”

Speaking to The Saturday Paper this week, MPs called the handling of the whole issue “crass”, “a shambles” and “a joke”.

Tasmanian Liberal backbench MP Bridget Archer, who is campaigning actively for a “Yes” vote on the Voice, called it “very disappointing”.

“I think it is really shameful that you’ve got Julian Leeser and Ken Wyatt and others put in this situation and that it could have been avoided just by allowing a free vote on it,” Archer says.

She believes the way Dutton describes the party’s position is “confusing”.

“I don’t really think it’s consistent with what was said in the party room … I think the party room thought they were taking a more nuanced, measured position on the Voice.”

A leading backbench Voice advocate, Senator Andrew Bragg, welcomes Leeser’s decision.

“I think it’s important the referendum is successful and Julian’s conviction will aid that outcome,” Bragg tells The Saturday Paper.

Bragg was one who argued in last week’s party-room meeting against forcing the frontbench to be bound by a party decision. He still believes Leeser should not have been put in that position and that the party should have taken the same approach as it did with the two most recent national votes, on an Australian republic in 1999 and marriage equality in 2017.

In both cases, all Liberal parliamentarians were free to choose their own positions.

“These sorts of issues have been above politics and that’s why there’s been freedom inside the Liberal Party on marriage and on the republic,” Bragg says. “There were conventions they could’ve just taken off the shelf from ’99 and 2017.”

Former prime minister John Howard, who oversaw the republic defeat, says this issue is “quite different” because the Liberals did not take a party position on the issue of a republic, only on holding a referendum.

“It is an error to compare the free vote on the republic to the current situation because on the republic, the policy on which we were elected was to have a referendum after a convention,” Howard tells The Saturday Paper. “We didn’t go to that referendum with a consolidated party view because there were a whole range of views that were formed in opposition.”

He says the differing views in the party must not force any change in its position. “They have to manage them,” Howard says of the divisions. “They have to stick to what they’ve done.” He says he is sorry that Leeser has resigned but “you can’t abandon good practice”.

“I know Julian, I like him. But I think the party took the right decision and I think Peter Dutton is handling things the correct way.”

Others say this only highlights that the party should not have taken a position at all. Former Liberal MP Fiona Scott, who is now seeking senate preselection, argues all Liberals should be free to campaign according to their beliefs.

“I don’t see how that’s out of kilter with what a party that calls itself the Liberal Party actually is,” Scott tells The Saturday Paper.

Scott says the fixed position creates difficulties in the wider Liberal Party.

“There’s a range of opinions across the party,” Scott says. “I think it is problematic for the federal party to take a position of ‘No’ when two state divisions [New South Wales and Tasmania] are in a position of ‘Yes’, when one of the proud virtues of the Liberal Party is the ability of affording members and senators a free vote.”

Cairns-based Liberal MP Warren Entsch says while he respects Julian Leeser’s right to resign, he does not agree with him. Entsch says it frustrates him that those who oppose the government’s proposed model are being portrayed as against any kind of Voice.

“We’re not against it,” he says. “We just want to make some changes. I’m the voice of a lot of people who are saying ‘No’.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 15, 2023 as "Inside story: How Peter Dutton set up the ‘No’ vote".

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