The Voice referendum has delivered its first political victim, with opposition Indigenous Australians spokesman Julian Leeser quitting the Liberal frontbench.
Months out from voting, you can all but guarantee he won’t be the last political casualty of this referendum.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is treading a difficult path and his comments after Leeser’s departure made clear where he’ll be focusing his attention.
Dutton has said he will actively campaign against the Voice.
If Tuesday is anything to go by, he’ll also be actively campaigning against Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, knowing his best bet is a classic political turf war.
In going to the backbench to be able to campaign for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament, Leeser brought to end one of the longest running mysteries within Liberal ranks.
How is it that a man who has advocated for a Voice to Parliament for at least a decade is not only on the frontline of a party opposed to it, but holding both the attorney-general and Indigenous Australians portfolios?
In the end the answer was simple: he couldn’t.
“What I’m doing today is to resign on a point of principle so I can campaign Yes,” Mr Leeser told a Sydney press conference.
Julian Leeser is regarded across the political aisle as a pragmatic, quiet-natured man of principle.
It was that principle that ultimately had him falling on his sword.
In recent months Leeser’s found himself having to explain why he supports “a Voice” but not “the Voice” being put forward by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his government.
And while he is campaigning Yes, it doesn’t mean he’s fully accepting the Voice that Albanese is seeking.
Leeser fears the current wording of the referendum risks setting it up for failure. He says he will seek to advance changes within the parliament but even if he’s unsuccessful, he will back the Voice.
“I believe the time for the Voice has come,” he said.
In going to the backbench, he joins Tasmanian Liberal Bridget Archer, who’s vowing to campaign for the Voice.
He joins the nation’s most senior elected Liberal, Tasmanian premier Jeremy Rockliff, and former federal Liberal minister Ken Wyatt as high-profile backers of a Yes vote.
Noticeably absent from joining him are fellow senior moderate frontbenchers — Simon Birmingham, Paul Fletcher and Marise Payne — who reportedly spoke out in shadow cabinet about the Liberal position.
Leeser’s move all but guarantees they too will face questions about how they can remain on the frontbench.
How many Liberals support the Voice?
Dutton suspects it’s just a few in his party who are opposed to the policy he’s advancing.
“[Leeser’s] position is at odds with the overwhelming majority of the Liberal Party members in our party room,” Dutton said.
Dutton is the chalk to Leeser’s cheese.
Leeser is measured, while Dutton is blunt.
If anything, his lines are getting even sharper as he focuses his attention on a political battle with the PM.
He took aim at Albanese, insisting the PM’s “Canberra Voice” would do little besides adding “thousands of public servants”, additional layers of bureaucracy and costing “billion of dollars”.
He did so without offering any evidence to support the claims.
But his attacks on the Voice will cause concern within the government.
Dutton sought to reassure people considering a No vote that it “does not make you racist”.
If he can make it a partisan, tribal debate, Labor knows it makes its efforts to deliver constitutional change even harder.
Albanese and Labor don’t want a political battle; they want the referendum to be decided by the people.
It’s why the prime minister is so keen for high-profile Indigenous athletes and entertainers to lead the campaign as the referendum approaches.
He’s got a lot on the line in this referendum. So too does Dutton and the aspiring politicians who might one day like to lead their parties.
There will be more political casualties on the heap after this referendum. It’s just a matter of how many.