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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

The decision of Julian Leeser, who has resigned from the opposition frontbench to campaign for a yes vote on the Voice to parliament, is both principled and pragmatic.

Principled because only rarely in politics do we see people make a significant personal sacrifice for their beliefs.

Being shadow minister for Indigenous Australians and shadow attorney-general is well short of being a minister. Still, stepping down to the backbench and going against the overwhelming view of your party on a critical issue takes a good deal of political courage.

Who knows what happens down the track – different circumstances could see Leeser’s political career re-flower. But as of now, he has been willing to deliver a blow to his own chances of future advancement.

His position is pragmatic because, as the saying goes, he hasn’t 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 finicky about that document. He believes the wording of the Albanese government’s proposed question for the referendum is flawed. Specifically, he thinks the new provision would be vulnerable to legal challenge.

He will try to get it changed. It is currently under examination by a parliamentary committee. But he knows significant alteration is extremely unlikely. That, however, is not going to prevent him from campaigning for a yes vote – because he judges the bigger cause is more important.

As he said on Tuesday:

I believe that through empowering people and by building institutions that shift responsibility and decision-making closer to people, we are more likely to shift the dial on Indigenous health, education, housing, safety and economic opportunity.

Among the various reasons Leeser will be an asset to the “yes” case is that he is personally close to leading Labor figures on the Voice, notably Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, and Patrick Dodson. He has worked with Dodson (who is currently on indefinite sick leave) in past years on constitutional recognition and a Voice.

Leeser’s personal position is somewhat similar to that of conservative legal academic Greg Craven, who has also been long involved with these issues. Craven doesn’t like the wording either, but says he will vote yes (although not campaign).

Leeser’s joining the yes case is a fillip for Anthony Albanese and a huge blow for Peter Dutton. For the opposition leader, the situation is diabolical.

Various prominent Liberals around the country are already on the “yes” side, and one would expect more to emerge.

Dutton’s parliamentary party is strongly against the Voice (with a few declared exceptions). But a number of frontbenchers won’t want to be campaigning for the “no” case, because that doesn’t represent their real position or because of political caution.

Whether or not they campaign, shadow ministers are bound to the party decision. So how will the shy ones handle invitations to community forums in the run-up to the vote? They can only plead “another engagement” so often.

The most prominent Liberal moderate, Simon Birmingham, who is opposition leader in the Senate, is in a particularly difficult situation.

Meanwhile, Dutton has to fill the positions 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 job. He could split the portfolios, although that would not be ideal, as the “no” campaign will partly rest on legal points. Paul Fletcher has legal qualifications and, like Leeser, is from New South Wales, so could be a possibility for the shadow attorney-general post. But the Indigenous position would not fit Fletcher, a moderate.

Read more:
Grattan on Friday: the high cost of the Liberals’ Voice rejection – for both Peter Dutton and the party

The now-chaotic situation in the Liberal Party comes after the huge rebuff Aston voters delivered in the recent byelection – and there, the Voice wasn’t even on the radar.

In other circumstances, the leader’s position would be in danger. That’s not the case at the moment. The problem is actually more serious.

The messages from Aston, and from Leeser’s stand on the Voice go to something much deeper: how the Liberal party is out of sync, on many fronts, with key parts of the modern Australian electorate, especially people under 40. (This point stands whatever the referendum result.) Getting back in touch requires a massive revamp of the party’s approach and there is little sign it is up to the task.

Leeser on Tuesday succinctly laid out the challenge for the “yes” case on the Voice, saying Australians who remained to be convinced fell into three groups.

The first group are those who are opposed to the Voice – on philosophical and constitutional grounds.

The second group are those who support the Voice in principle – or who want to support it – but who in the vast majority of cases have genuine doubts and questions about the proposal that the government has put forward.

And the third group are yet to engage, but they too have questions and concerns.

Can the “yes” campaign win over enough people from these groups, particularly groups two and three, for the necessary majority of the national vote and majority of states?

Impossible to know at this stage. But some voters will surely be reassured that such a cautious, conservative figure as Leeser, who has demonstrated personal integrity, is giving them permission to vote “yes”, and to not be too fearful of the consequences.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. View from The Hill: Julian Leeser shifts his own dial in the Liberal Party –