Unlikely allies Abbott, Kean back Leeser’s return to the frontbench
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Former prime minister Tony Abbott and leading NSW Liberal moderate Matt Kean are calling for Julian Leeser to be returned to the Liberal Party’s shadow cabinet, arguing that the former shadow attorney-general should not be punished for his principled decision to resign from his post to campaign for a Voice to parliament.
Leeser, a long-time supporter of constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, resigned from the attorney-general and Indigenous Australians portfolios in April so that he could campaign for the Voice after the Liberal Party formally resolved to oppose it.
Liberal MPs Bridget Archer and Julian Leeser. Leeser’s return to the Liberal frontbench is being hotly debated.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
This masthead revealed last week that Opposition Leader Peter Dutton had been testing the mood in his party room about Leeser returning to a frontbench position now that the referendum has been held.
There are two vacancies on the Coalition frontbench at present – 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.
Dutton is expected to announce a revamped opposition front bench in a matter of weeks and some Liberals oppose Leeser’s return, arguing instead that room should be made for a Queenslander – potentially Bert Van Manen or Garth Hamilton. Other Liberal MPs being discussed for promotion include Scott Buchholz, Zoe McKenzie and Senator Hollie Hughes.
The debate over Leeser’s future is a rare outbreak of public disunity in Liberal Party ranks.
But Abbott, a widely respected figure in the Liberal Party and a leading conservative voice, called for Leeser’s return.
“He’s a good man who acted honourably throughout the referendum campaign and, while this is up to Peter Dutton of course, I’d hope to see him back on the frontbench in the not too distant future,” he said.
Kean, a former NSW state treasurer who is from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from Abbott, and whose state seat of Hornsby sits within Leeser’s federal seat of Berowra, backed the call for Leeser’s return.
“Julian has proven himself to be not only principled, but a respectful team player. He put his principles ahead of his own promotion [by resigning]. This election will be won and lost in NSW and we certainly need to show that we have got smart and principled people,” he said.
“Julian is one of the most talented and principled people you will find in public life. He has an enormous contribution to make in ensuring that Peter Dutton is the next prime minister of Australia.”
Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley said responsibility for handing out frontbench positions fell “solely within the autonomy, responsibility and remit of the leader”.
“Those decisions are his alone to make. When I look at our backbench and the wider outer ministry it’s easy to see a lot of talent, it’s basically impossible for Peter to make a bad decision.”
Ley has told colleagues that rectifying the imbalance in cabinet between the number of Nationals – who are overrepresented by two – and Liberals would be a positive move that would allow a wider reshuffle.
Two other MPs, who asked not to be named so that they could speak about internal party processes, said Leeser’s return was important as the Liberal Party’s vote had gone backwards in the state in recent polls.
“We need more voices from NSW on the frontbench, the election will be won in NSW, not Queensland. The lesson from the referendum is not to move further to the Right, it is to be wary of hubris and arrogance,” one MP said.
A second MP said the federal branch needed a strategy to broaden its appeal to women, to younger voters and to people living in Australia’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, and Leeser could play an important role in broadening the party’s appeal.
“Julian is the answer to a Dutton problem, he is a senior Liberal who we can send into seats like Wentworth and Mackellar [held by teal independents]. He reaches people who want conviction politicians,” the second MP said.
“He has proven he is not a careerist, that he will stand up for his values, unlike other so-called moderates who did not stand down. And since when did the Liberal Party make it a crime to exercise your conscience?”
Leeser declined to comment.
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