The shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Julian Leeser, has quit the shadow cabinet, declaring he was resigning “on a point of principle” so he could campaign for a yes vote at the referendum to insert an Indigenous Voice into the Constitution.
Leeser’s shock action has dramatically undermined the decision by opposition leader Peter Dutton and the Liberal Party to oppose the Voice at the referendum later this year. Dutton has said he intends to actively campaign for the no case.
The stand by Leeser will put pressure on other frontbenchers who are opposed to or doubtful about the Liberals’ hard-no position.
It will also force a reshuffle of the opposition frontbench. Dutton will not only have to find a new spokesperson on Indigenous Australians to stand with him in the no campaign, but a new shadow attorney-general, the other position Leeser has held.
“I believe the time for the Voice has come,” Leeser told a news conference. “I believe that Voice can help move the dial on Indigenous education, health, housing, safety and economic development.”
Leeser said he had tried to convince his colleagues in shadow cabinet and the Liberal Party, but had failed. He and Dutton had agreed he would reflect on his situation over Passover. They had been talking about his position for months.
Leeser remained critical of the Albanese government’s proposed wording for the referendum and said he would spend the coming weeks trying to get changes. A parliamentary inquiry is underway, although there is little chance of any significant alteration of the wording.
Leeser outlined his concerns last week in a speech to the National Press Club and also what changes he thought necessary to make the constitutional change legally safer and to improve the chances of the referendum passing.
A constitutional conservative, Leeser has been a strong supporter of a Voice for years and has been involved in the process for around a decade.
Leeser strongly affirmed his support for Dutton’s leadership, saying he resigned “without rancour or bitterness” and remained “a loyal Liberal”.
“Peter did everything he could to keep me. I respect that and I respect him very much. But 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.”
“My resignation today as a frontbencher is not about personality. It’s about trying to keep faith with the very cords of belief and belonging that are part of who I am. Keeping faith with the First Peoples of this land, who want to have a stake in their own future, with a structural change in our constitution to help improve the quality of their lives.”
He said the Voice was not about special privileges. “It is about recognising that Indigenous Australians are our brothers and sisters, and we have left them behind in our shared national project.”
Leeser received strong support from Liberal moderate backbencher Andrew Bragg. “I want the referendum to be successful and I believe a yes vote is now more likely because of Julian’s conviction,” Bragg said.
Another Liberal backbencher, Bridget Archer, who has said she will campaign for the Voice, praised Leeser’s “courage and integrity”.