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Liberal MPs are pushing back against the prospect of Julian Leeser returning to the Coalition frontbench, arguing his resignation to campaign for the Voice to parliament should not be rewarded.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has cautiously tested the mood among trusted colleagues in recent weeks to gauge whether Leeser’s return would be accepted, according to two Liberal sources speaking on the condition of anonymity to detail private talks.
Julian Leeser quit the opposition frontbench in order to campaign for the Voice.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Two vacancies exist on the Coalition frontbench: the cabinet secretary post vacated by former senator Marise Payne, and the shadow assistant treasurer’s role formerly held by Stuart Robert, who quit in May. A revamped opposition team could be announced within weeks.
Leeser quit his position as shadow attorney-general and Indigenous Australians spokesman in April after the Liberal Party forced frontbenchers to campaign for No. As someone who was intrinsically involved in the development of the Voice, Leeser moved to the backbench to campaign for Yes.
Several sources said Liberals, particularly those in the party’s right flank who strongly opposed the Voice, had been urging Dutton to keep the Berowra MP on the backbench for the remainder of the parliamentary term.
The delayed shake-up is proving one of the trickiest tests of Dutton’s period as opposition leader, which has to date been marked by a surprising level of internal stability and what MPs describe as Dutton’s astute management of intra-party politics.
He is under pressure to appoint a Queenslander – potentially Bert Van Manen or Garth Hamilton – because the northern state’s MPs are numerically underrepresented in the shadow cabinet.
Dutton will also be conscious of the need to ensure a healthy balance of moderate MPs in a potential future cabinet, after many leading moderates were ousted by teal independents.
Moderate MP and Voice supporter Andrew Bragg has also put his hand up to replace Robert, but that appointment would frustrate some Queenslanders who are, typically, more conservative.
Andrew Bragg has put his hand up to join the frontbench.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Leeser made a point of never directly criticising Dutton during the referendum campaign and stressed he was quitting on a matter of principle rather than as a protest against Dutton.
Many of the MPs opposing his promotion retain strong respect for the 47-year-old, who is viewed as smart and decent, but may ultimately suffer for his principled stance. But some are questioning his political judgement in fighting for a cause few Liberal voters supported.
One conservative MP predicted Leeser would incur a similar fate to that of Petro Georgiou, a well-known former Victorian Liberal who served 16 years in parliament and was long-touted for promotion but never achieved it, in part because of his outspoken opposition to mandatory detention policies.
“The weight of evidence suggests Leeser would come back. The Left will push for it, he’s a media darling too. But I think Leeser is the new Petro Georgiou”.
“Dutton is a bloke who will give you a chance but if you go against him, he won’t forget it.”
Leeser campaigning with Noel Pearson and NSW MP Matt Kean in July.Credit: Rhett Wyman
A second MP said Leeser’s resignation had caused damage to the opposition and that while he could return to the frontbench at some point, “he has to serve his time” because “I don’t think you can reward people who go against the leadership”.
A third MP unfavourably compared Leeser’s approach to the Voice to that of Bragg, who consistently attacked Labor for its handling of the referendum, while Leeser largely refrained from criticising the government once it became clear the contentious referendum wording would not be changed to appease conservatives.
In April, Dutton was asked if there was a chance Leeser could return to the frontbench, to which he answered, “I think there will be one day,” and added that “Julian’s a man of immense talent and character”.
Leeser on Sunday said on ABC’s Insiders that his potential promotion was a matter for Dutton and he was fully focused on campaigning to remove the Labor government.
Some MPs said the shadow cabinet could be expanded by an extra member, as Michael Sukkar currently has three shadow cabinet posts and a heavy workload.
Luke Howarth or Angie Bell, who are already frontbenchers, Phillip Thompson, Paul Scarr, or Dean Smith could all be part of a reshuffle of the shadow cabinet and assistant shadow ministry.
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