Peter Dutton left with a difficult decision, after Julian Leeser’s stand blows big holes in his Voice argument – ABC News

Peter Dutton left with a difficult decision, after Julian Leeser's stand blows big holes in his Voice argument - ABC News

As far as political break-ups go, it was one of the most amicable anyone can recall.

Both Julian Leeser and Peter Dutton had nothing but very nice and respectful things to say about each other, notwithstanding their disagreement over one policy area.

But make no mistake, the man who until this week was responsible for the Coalition’s positions on both constitutional and Indigenous matters has blown serious holes in both Liberal and National Party arguments against the Voice. And he’s given Liberal moderates cause to consider which way to jump.

First, Leeser shot down the central argument being mounted by Dutton, whose leadership now rides on the outcome of this referendum. This is the argument that a national Voice will simply be a bloated bureaucracy that won’t do anything to help tackle Indigenous disadvantage. 


“It’s not going to deliver the outcomes on the ground,” Dutton says. He rammed home the point yesterday from Alice Springs, where he argues the government has taken its eye off the ball, ignoring problems of violence and child abuse.

Leeser fundamentally disagrees with Dutton’s view that the Voice will make no difference. He frames his argument with an appeal to Liberal values: “I believe that by empowering people and building institutions that shift responsibility and decision making closer to people, we’ll more likely shift the dial on Indigenous health, education, housing, safety and economic advancement.”

Profound differences of opinion

The difference of opinion here is profound. Leeser has travelled to remote communities with Dutton and was entrusted with formulating Coalition policy. He argues the Voice will help close the gap across all areas of disadvantage. For Leeser, this transcends the arguments around legal risk or details of precisely how the Voice will operate.

Not that Leeser is entirely comfortable about the legal risk or the lack of detail. He believes the process has not been handled well and he’ll continue to press for change to the proposed constitutional wording. Indeed, he fears the referendum is currently on track to fail.

Notwithstanding these concerns, Leeser is now firmly on the “yes” side. For this constitutional conservative, the benefits of the Voice far outweigh the risks. 

It’s worth noting the other constitutional conservative Dutton regularly cites, Professor Greg Craven, has also made it clear he will ultimately vote yes, if somewhat reluctantly given his similar concerns about legal risks.

Second, Leeser took aim at another central argument of the “no” campaign coming from those further to the right. This is the claim, predominantly made by the Nationals and One Nation, that the Voice will entrench racial division.

Barnaby Joyce’s “number one concern” is that the Voice would “define people by DNA”. Jacinta Nampijinpa Price says it would afford “powers to one group of people based on race”. Pauline Hanson calls it a “race-based” idea.

Notably, Dutton has steered clear of using this “special treatment” argument when making his case against the Voice.

The Liberal leader does not echo the complaint about a “race-based” Voice. After all, he still wants legislated Voice bodies at the local and regional level. While ill-defined, they would presumably be exclusively Indigenous. And the Liberal Party still wants some sort of recognition enshrined in the constitution. This accepts the special status of Indigenous Australians.

Peter Dutton argues the Voice to Parliament will not “deliver the outcomes on the ground”.()

Dutton’s difficult decision

The Liberals and Nationals may both be pushing for a “no” vote, but there are differences in the arguments and alternatives being putting forward by the two parties.

These differences further complicate the already difficult decision Dutton faces in replacing Julian Leeser. This will be one (or perhaps two, if the roles are split) of the most critical and difficult roles in the opposition in the lead-up to the referendum.

Dutton is already being urged by Pauline Hanson to give the Indigenous Australians portfolio to Senator Nampijinpa Price. The Country Liberal Party Senator, who sits with the National Party, is a powerful advocate for the “no” case. But her views aren’t entirely in line with Dutton’s.

Country Liberals Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price is a powerful advocate for the “no” case against the Voice.()

When asked on Radio National about local and regional Voices this week, Senator Price said she would rather “ensure local government is empowered further”. In other words, no specific Indigenous advisory bodies, even at a grassroots level.

For his part, Leeser believes the hand-wringing about “special treatment” is misplaced. “The Voice is not about special privileges,” he says. “It’s about recognising that Indigenous Australians are our brothers and sisters and we have left them behind in our shared national project.”

It’s unlikely Leeser will sway the Nationals or One Nation on this point. Nor is he expecting his move to the backbench this week will necessarily convince other Liberals to sign up to the “yes” case. But it may give them greater cover to become “soft yes” supporters.


Taking a stand, pausing for thought

When asked on Sky News yesterday which way he’ll personally vote in the referendum, leading Liberal moderate Simon Birmingham wouldn’t say. This was the Coalition’s Senate leader, one of its most senior figures. 

He won’t commit to voting “no” as his party is now advocating. Birmingham said he would continue to take counsel from Leeser, although it’s not his “intention” to join his friend on the backbench.

While the decision to quit took guts, Leeser had little choice. As a self-described architect of the concept of a constitutionally enshrined Voice, to remain a shadow minister and play a leading role in the “no” campaign would have left his credibility in tatters. He would have forever been seen as a sell-out. 

Instead, Leeser has taken a stand on principle. That meant far more than just politely giving up a shadow ministry.

Leeser has set about exposing weaknesses in the “no” case and is already giving fellow Liberals pause for thought.

David Speers is the host of Insiders, which airs on ABC TV at 9am on Sunday or on iview.


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