‘I feel like a weight has been lifted off me’: The MP who broke with Peter Dutton on signature stand

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Julian Leeser, Liberal backbencher, former frontbencher, constitution-enthusiast and strong Voice supporter, wants to clarify something: he was not a Goth at university.

I suspect this is not something he needs to clear up.

Julian Leeser at lunch at O’Bombay Restaurant in Hornsby.Credit: Louise Kennerley

Leeser was a year above me at UNSW law school, and although I didn’t know him well, I knew him well enough not to place him in a post-punk subculture associated with black lipstick and the music of The Cure.

Leeser was the president of the debating society and a universally admired figure at uni in the late 1990s because he was unfailingly friendly and civil, even though his conservative politics were often at odds with campus culture.

We had a few friends in common – one of them was a Goth. Hence this turn of conversation.

“I turned up at this cool Goth party,” he reminisces. “I was not a Goth. I turned up in my blazer, just me. And, like, the Goths were cool! They have this strange music and makeup.

“I thought, ‘OK this is what they do for fun. It’s not what I do for fun, but they’re nice people’.”

This image of the blazered young fogey enjoying the Goth party captures much about the 47-year-old MP for Berowra, who stood down from the Indigenous Affairs portfolio in April so he could campaign for the Voice, which the parliamentary Liberal Party formally opposes.

He is open-minded, but he knows his own mind. “I feel like a weight has been lifted off me,” Leeser says now of his choice to step down.

Leeser and I are having lunch at O’Bombay, an Indian-fusion restaurant in Hornsby. He is wearing spectacles, a pin-striped suit and a tie, and looks much like the solicitor he once was – Leeser worked briefly at Mallesons after graduating Arts/Law with Honours in Political Science.

He has also worked as an adviser for Tony Abbott and Philip Ruddock, headed the Liberal Party think tank the Menzies Research Centre, and served as an executive at the Australian Catholic University (he is Jewish).

The Thali plate at O’Bombay.Credit: Louise Kennerley

Leeser is friendly with the restaurant’s owners, and he chats to our server about business (she says people are budget-conscious and eating out less) before we both order Thali plates – the best decision to make in an Indian restaurant when you can’t make a decision.

Leeser says that since he exited the Opposition frontbench, he is frequently stopped by constituents thanking him or congratulating him.

As if he cued it, this happens after we pay the bill and leave the restaurant – a fellow patron comes up and thanks him (she also says she probably won’t vote Liberal at the next election).

“They say, ‘We’re really pleased you made that decision’, or ‘We’re not sure we agree with the decision but we are pleased you took a stand’,” Leeser tells me.

“I think that’s what people are looking for in their parliamentarians.”

Now Leeser is liberated to campaign for the Voice, about which he is passionate, he is making last-ditch efforts to get the government to change the wording of the amendment referendum question, to remove the words “executive government” and to take out the symbolic language.

Next week in parliament he will move amendments to this end. This week he gave a speech on the introduction of the referendum legislation.

Our food arrives – two steaming platters with a side of naan for me, and roti for Leeser.

We have a selection of goat curry, butter chicken, prawn moilee, raita and black lentil dal.

I assure Leeser, an ardent Monarchist, that he will be treated like the Queen – that is, we won’t photograph him eating.

We tuck in. Leeser loves India. He honeymooned there with his barrister wife, Joanna. He is the deputy chair of the Parliamentary Friends of India, and on Tuesday he joined the Narendra Modi festivities in Sydney and met the Indian prime minister and Foreign Minister Dr S Jaishankar.

“It’s such an exciting place to go,” he says. “You really do feel the future’s there.”

Leeser is also a constitution nut – he was given a copy of the Australian constitution for his 10th birthday, and that sparked a lifelong interest in constitutions of all kinds.

Julian Leeser loves India and met Narendra Modi on Tuesday.Credit: James Brickwood

He does not agree with the minority of legal scholars and former judges who warn of a wave of legal challenges to the Voice.

Leeser also believes there is no inherent problem with the Voice advising the executive government (as opposed to just parliament).

“I don’t think there’s a big legal issue,” he says. “But I think there’s a political issue, and you know, at the end of the day, you need to win the referendum.

“If the referendum is lost, that’s a terrible setback – for our country, a terrible setback for Reconciliation, and, obviously, we don’t get the Voice.

“So my view is you’re better with a lighter touch constitutional provision that gets you there and moves the referendum to safer ground than it is today.”

His argument is compelling, not least because he served as a member of then-prime minister John Howard’s No campaign during the 1999 referendum for a Republic, and in 2000 he was associate to Justice Ian Callinan on the High Court. Callinan is a constitutional conservative who is opposed to the Voice.

In other words, Leeser is an emissary from the camp of constitutional and social conservatism, someone intimate with the kinds of “soft-No” voters the Voice campaign needs to win over.

But Leeser is highly unlikely to get his way on the amendment.

Won’t it be difficult for him to argue the “Yes” case, given he has been so vocally critical of the proposed wording, and the process behind it?

Julian Leeser (far left) was a member of the Constitutional referendum ‘No’ Committee.Credit: Fairfax Media

He elegantly dodges the question. “Everybody acknowledges that the system is broken,” he says. “Everybody acknowledges that this is a wonderful country to live in, that we have some of the best social and economic performance in the world, but we have this persistent gap that, despite goodwill and all sorts of politics, despite substantial funding, is just not moving.”

This is because policy has been formulated by well-meaning politicians and bureaucrats in Canberra who haven’t consulted people on the ground, Leeser says.

“You get better results for your spending by consulting and engaging with people who are directly affected. You get a better outcome. You’re able to adjust the programs and you get buy-in. And I think those things have been missing in Indigenous affairs for too long.”

As for arguments the Voice is racial exceptionalism – a line Opposition leader Peter Dutton argued this week when he said it would “re-racialise” the country – Leeser is calmly dismissive.

He points out the Constitution already contains a “race power” (section 51 (xxvi)).

“Since Federation, the only people we have ever made laws about on the basis of their race are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he says.

“I believe they should be given a right to be consulted about what those laws and policies are. We are not dividing people on race, there is not some sort of special privilege.

“I mean, tell people in remote communities they are somehow privileged.”

Leeser will not be drawn on what a successful “Yes” campaign will mean for the Liberals or for his leader.

I ask him about his appetite for conflict – he seems to me much milder than the usual political personality.

“I don’t enjoy conflict for conflict’s sake,” he tells me. “I like having a debate about ideas.”

Leeser, photographed at Macquarie Lighthouse, was elected to the Woollahra Council when he was 19.Credit: Brendan Esposito

Apart from his flirtation with Goth culture, two other things happened while Leeser was a uni student.

First, at the age of 19, he was elected a councillor of Woollahra local council in Sydney’s east. This experience proved seminal. Leeser learned that grassroots consultation is integral to successful outcomes – knowledge he brings to the Voice debate.

The second thing that happened when Leeser was only 20 was that his father, an accountant, died by suicide. He spoke about this movingly in his first speech to parliament in 2016 – Leeser was still living at home and recalls with clarity his mother’s distress on finding the suicide note.

I ask him how this tragedy impacted his personality.

“You asked me before about combat … when I got elected to council at 19, I was ready to have a fight with anyone,” he says. “I probably would have been one of those people who loved a fight … and I think [the suicide] didn’t knock the fight out of me, but it actually made me realise, ‘You’ve got broader responsibilities here’.

“You try to see the dignity in other people, just because you’ve had a display of that in a way that you never expected.”

Leeser says his approach to his job has changed since he became a father to James, 5, and Ruth, 14 months.

Recently, the family bought a new TV to watch the Coronation of Charles III, who Leeser believes will be a “good king”.

Leeser ducked home for the Westminster Abbey show after appearing on an ABC panel alongside Stan Grant, as part of the broadcaster’s coverage of the event.

In the ensuing period, that panel and its fallout for Indigenous author Grant has become a topic of debate, although Leeser and I met before Grant announced he would step back from television following racist abuse.

In the week after our lunch, Leeser contacted Grant to express his support over the vitriol he was copping.

“I’m always happy to go on and defend the Crown,” Leeser says, but says he believes the ABC “got the balance wrong” in their coverage.

He laments having little time to read for pleasure, but mentions a few books as recent favourites – The Magna Carta of Humanity by Os Guinness, Hunt Gather Parent by Michaeleen Doucleff, about the parenting practices of tribal cultures, and Scorpions by Noah Feldman – about the US Supreme Court judges of President Franklin Roosevelt’s time.

Leeser used to enjoy the theatre greatly but now has little time for it, although he will soon take his staff to see a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins.

The most recent movie he saw was Super Mario Brothers, and he reads a lot of Spider Man literature with his five-year-old. “You know, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’,” he says, laughing.

Lifeline is on 13 11 14.

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