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Party members breaking ranks might break the Liberals

By Scott Prasser - posted Monday, 24 April 2023

Much is being made about federal Liberal MP, Julian Leeser’s decision to resign from the Coalition’s shadow ministry because he does not agree with his leader, and presumably, most of his colleagues, regarding their stance on the forthcoming referendum.

Julian Leeser himself says he remains a loyal Liberal. This seems at odds with his behaviour, which is undermining his leader’s standing and his party’s unity, causing policy confusion at a time when the Liberal Party is in need to clarify exactly what it’s for and against. 

That Mr Leeser is now going to support the government’s wording of the proposed referendum, which he has previously said is unacceptable, also seems odd. 


Of course, why any party member break ranks is rarely straightforward. It is usually a mixture of personal ambition, ego, and opportunism wrapped in a thin texture of principles sometimes hard to identify.

Leeser is lucky that he is in the Liberal Party where such divergences of opinion, including  even crossing the floor in Parliament against their own government’s proposals, can usually be done without fear of immediate expulsion or suspension – unless you are in the Victorian Liberal Party of course.

This is what distinguishes the Liberal Party from Labor where members pledge to support the party’s platform and government policies regardless of their own views, values or a policy’s logic. Failure to toe the Labor party line usually results in expulsion or suspension. Hence, few Labor members cross the floor in Parliament. Between 1950-2019, of all the federal parliamentarians who crossed the floor against their own party only three per cent were Labor members.

And certainly there are precedents for Liberals to oppose their own party’s referendum proposals. In 1977 a small number of Liberals opposed the Fraser government’s referendum for the simultaneous elections of the House of Representatives and Senate. The problem was they were being asked to support the very same referendum attempted by the Whitlam Labor government in 1974 that the Coalition had opposed and easily defeated. At that time, the only Fraser government office holder, and a minor one, not even appointed by the prime minister, who opposed the simultaneous election referendum was Queensland Senator Kathy Martin Sullivan.  

She resigned her position as deputy government whip in the Senate and joined with the Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland in opposing the simultaneous election proposal.  The Liberal Western Australian government and the Liberal opposition in Tasmania also opposed that referendum which subsequently failed.

While the Liberal Party has been more accepting of their parliamentarians exercising their conscience and breaking ranks from time to time, no party can tolerate too much of this selfish behaviour. If it persists, a party ceases to be a party. Tactically, no party can survive the cut and thrust of day-to-day politics with such disunity. No party can attract support if it lacks a coherent and consistent policy stance because some members want to exercise their own personal predilections on this issue or that.


The founder of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies, while appreciative of the need for tolerance of individual choice, was adamant that his new party would not follow in the footsteps of its predecessors where personal ambition overrode party unity. As he said: “If you were to look at the history of non-Labour politics … you will find it profoundly marred, and … ruined by disunity. We will not deserve to succeed until we have achieved loyalty and unity.”

Leeser’s recent actions shows no loyalty to his leader, his parliamentary colleagues and most importantly, to long suffering Liberal supporters who are tired of the party’s policy of appeasement during the last nine years in office. Nor does Leeser’s actions contribute to the Liberal Party’s unity.

Julian Leeser, former head of the Menzies Research Centre, should know his party’s history better. He would be wise while on the backbench to spend that extra time not campaigning against his party but reading his Menzies to see what the Liberal Party and grown up politics, is all about.


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This article was first published in The Canberra Times.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser has worked on senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments. His recent publications include:Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia (2021); The Whitlam Era with David Clune (2022) and the edited New directions in royal commission and public inquiries: Do we need them?. His forthcoming publication is The Art of Opposition reviewing oppositions across Australia and internationally. .

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