Dutton has staked everything on his stand against the Voice

By James Massola and Lisa Visentin

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After holding the Liberal Party together for his first year as opposition leader, Peter Dutton now leads a team facing its most difficult moment since the election.

The shock Aston byelection defeat, the resignation of former cabinet minister Ken Wyatt from the party and the departure of Julian Leeser from the shadow ministry, which has forced an awkward mini-reshuffle, are the catalysts for Dutton and the party’s difficulty.

But the decision to formally oppose a Voice to parliament, the fuse that lit two of these bombshells, was all but unavoidable for the Liberal leader. Even though it appears clear it has moved the party to the right politically, and made it harder for it to win back the so-called teal seats, Dutton had other imperatives.

Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley and leader Peter Dutton announce the party’s stance on the Voice referendum.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

One MP, a close ally of Dutton, who asked not to be named, said: “Peter is all in on this.” The MP warned that “the ramifications for the Liberal Party if the Yes campaign is successful, will be profound”.

“There will likely be an early election, and it will likely be very difficult for the Liberal Party to win, which would set Labor on a trajectory for several election wins. But the reality is if the Liberal Party had adopted any other position there would have been profound consequences for the membership.

“This presents an opportunity for the Liberal Party to reestablish its credentials with its base, remind the wider electorate of what it stands for and put Anthony Albanese at real risk because proponents of the Voice will want someone to blame if this fails,” the MP said.

But there is concern among some Liberal parliamentarians. Another MP, who also asked not to be named, says the party is not cutting through with voters and needs to implement the recommendations of the post-election review, which Brian Loughnane and Jane Hume conducted.

“I think we should be kicking more goals than we are. I would like to see a targeted strategy to win back seats in WA and the teal seats. We are getting to a point where we need to lock in a strategy.”

The impact of Aston on party morale and the leader’s standing should not be underestimated, either. It was the first time in a byelection an opposition has lost a seat to a government in 103 years, and it happened in an outer suburban seat – exactly the sort of seat Dutton has been targeting in his quest to return to power in one term. The loss left some MPs questioning the opposition’s strategy, tactics, and path back to forming government.

The decision to oppose a national Voice, while backing regional Voices and constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, has the strong support of the majority of Dutton’s party room. But while he has the party room largely on his side, it’s much less clear the Australian people are in step with this move to the right.

If the Voice referendum is the first in Australian history to succeed without bipartisan support then Dutton will have gambled and lost: the judgment of the Australian people will be damning. It’s hard to see how he survives as opposition leader, given Labor will plant the failure on his head like a crown of thorns.

If the referendum fails then Dutton will have won and damaged Albanese just as Tony Abbott’s strategy of all-out opposition destabilised Kevin Rudd in 2010, forcing him to blink on the “great moral challenge of our time” and drop the carbon pollution reduction scheme.

But Dutton will be damaged too: there will be many (including Labor) who will blame the opposition leader rather than the prime minister for the loss.

The cause of reconciliation in Australia will be set back a generation or more, too – it has, after all, been 24 years since the Republic referendum and the case for another referendum has barely advanced since.

The Voice referendum is unlikely to divide Australia’s day-to-day politics for a decade as the Rudd-Gillard-Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison climate wars did, as Australians will vote on the matter – most likely on October 14 – and it will be decided.

But the referendum has, in the minds of at least some among the Liberal MPs, taken on the significance of the 2010-13 campaign against the carbon price/carbon tax introduced by Gillard. Opposing the Voice to parliament has become an article of faith for Liberal MPs, with a few exceptions, and a test of political purity and fealty to Dutton’s plan to return the opposition to power after just one term.

And as the party has coalesced around a No vote, so, too, has its shift to the right continued under Dutton, who leads the conservative faction of the party.

“The nation will go in one direction or the other. If we lose this we are in opposition for a decade,” says the Dutton supporter.

The loss of Leeser this week is a double blow. Dutton must appoint two new ministers. Few in the party think the portfolios of shadow attorney-general and Indigenous Australians will remain together.

Frontbenchers Michaelia Cash, Michael Sukkar and Paul Fletcher are discussed as the most likely contenders for the attorney-general’s spot to take on Labor’s Mark Dreyfus, and all are seen as safe pairs of hands.

At the time of publication, the likely replacement in the Indigenous Australians portfolio was less clear.

The most likely outcome appeared to be a split decision: a safe option such as shadow health minister Anne Ruston to take on the Indigenous Australians portfolio but Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a newby senator who is a hero to some Liberals (though she is a Country Liberal who sits in the Nationals party room) likely to be given additional responsibility to campaign against the Voice.

Too big a reshuffle and Dutton will make enemies. Not enough ambition and he risks failure.

As a third Liberal MP explains it, summing up the views of many in the party room, Dutton has “nothing to lose” in unleashing the eloquent Price to campaign for the No vote.

But even as some new Liberal faces step forward to stand with Dutton and campaign No, Leeser’s exit and the obvious discomfort of a number of leading Liberal moderates has been conspicuous.

Leeser, for his part, is determined to ensure his frontbench exit inflicts as little damage as possible on Dutton’s leadership, framing it as a matter of his personal conviction and insisting he departed with no rancour.

Dutton and Leeser have been at pains to emphasise his outlier status within shadow cabinet when it came to the Voice, owing to his decade-long advocacy for an Indigenous advisory body in the Constitution and work with Indigenous leaders Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Megan Davis on early concepts of the Voice.

The loss of Julian Leeser from the Coalition frontbench was a double blow.Credit:Louise Kennerley

But Leeser clearly isn’t on his own.

In a lengthy Facebook post on Thursday, Liberal senate leader and Moderates leader Simon Birmingham said that he would have preferred the shadow cabinet to have the freedom to campaign for or against the Voice.

That pressure release valve was used in the 1999 Republic referendum and in the 2017 same-sex marriage postal survey, but not on this occasion.

“The majority of the Liberal party room disagreed, preferring a formal party position supporting the initial concept of constitutional recognition but opposing a constitutionally enshrined Voice at this time,” Birmingham wrote.

The South Australian senator said he would not resign over the matter, but nor would he campaign against the Voice proposal, which does not align with his personal preference for constitutional recognition, minus a constitutionally enshrined Voice to parliament.

Senator Alex Antic, a factional enemy of Birmingham in South Australia, declared his rival’s position “fairly untenable” in the shadow cabinet.

Manager of opposition business Paul Fletcher, another leading moderate, backs the party position but won’t say how he will personally vote.

Back in December, Leeser told his leader that if a hard no position was adopted it would be near-impossible for him to abide.

“We’ve had a series of respectful conversations over that time, but when it was clear [what] the decision [was] that we were going to make, I informed him of my view. He was respectful at all times and this was entirely my decision.”

He declines to elaborate on the ways in which Dutton tried to make room for him, or how forcefully he pressed his leader for the freedom to campaign for the Voice – a position which, if adopted by Dutton, would have allowed Leeser to remain on the frontbench.

The coming weeks and months will surely wedge Leeser, forcing him to walk an ever-thinning tightrope as Dutton intensifies his criticisms of the Voice and cements his role as a leading No campaigner, while Leeser attempts to champion a Yes vote and tries to remain above the fray.

“One thing I’m not going to do because I’m a member of the Liberal Party, because I support the leadership of Peter Dutton, I am not going to be making a commentary on what my colleagues are saying about this,” he says.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton will need to reshuffle his frontbench.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

But having Leeser alongside a handful of other Liberals including Andrew Bragg and Bridget Archer campaigning for the Voice, while Birmingham and Fletcher publicly equivocate, will make Dutton’s job that much harder.

And there are a number of other Moderate and Centrist Liberal MPs who have been conspicuous by their absence to date too, including Jane Hume, Marise Payne, Richard Colbeck, David Coleman, Jenny Ware, Russell Broadbent and Aaron Violi.

Some of these MPs, conscious that they live in states likely to deliver a resounding Yes vote, could come out publicly for the Voice too.

Support for the Voice to parliament has softened in the nine months since Albanese announced plans for the referendum at the Garma festival last July.

In August 2022, 63 per cent of voters said they would vote yes when surveyed for the Resolve Political Monitor, which is published by The Age and the Herald. That figure declined to 57 per cent in the most recent survey, published in March 2023.

The Yes campaign is banking on momentum gathering pace as sports and community organisations and major businesses throw money, resources and high-profile faces behind the Voice, though the polls suggest the referendum could fail.

And Peter Dutton has staked his political future on that.

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