Victorian Liberal leader John Pesutto fails first test of leadership

Victorian Liberal leader John Pesutto fails first test of leadership

By Stephanie Bastiaan

It’s been a gut-wrenching fortnight for Liberal Party supporters watching the vilification of Moira Deeming, who, through no fault of her own, became a story of John Pesutto’s making when he tied her in with Nazis who gate crashed the Let Women’s Speak rally in Melbourne.

Pesutto could have defended women’s rights while also condemning the extremists from the left and right who attempted to hijack the event. Instead, he seized the opportunity to promote his teal credentials in a naive move that would unravel his leadership. 

For a week, Pesutto undertook one train wreck interview after another, attempting to smear Deeming and making false statements about her associates, desperate to convince the public he was a leader standing up against bigotry. The more he spoke, the more obvious it was a fit-up.

Pesutto missed his one opportunity for redemption after Deeming was forced to disclose her motivation in advocating for women’s rights and safety, that she was a survivor of child sexual assault. A leader with a heart or at least a brain would have walked out with Deeming to front the press and challenged the public to open the door to respectful discussion on balancing the needs of the trans community with women’s rights.

Instead, upon realising he had lost the numbers to expel Deeming, he successfully brokered a deal to suspend her for nine months sending a message not only to women but victims of sexual assault that women like Deeming deserve to be punished for speaking out.

Pesutto failed every Victorian woman and girl at that moment, as did every Liberal female MP who self-interestedly stood behind him.

Pesutto has been touted as the great hope for the Victorian Liberal Party ever since he lost his seat in Hawthorn to Labor in 2018. Self-described as a progressive and modern Liberal, his backers carried high expectations that he would unite the Liberal Party and lead them out of the political wilderness into government.

His first mistake was the appointment of an inner-city-centric leadership team who all believe the profile of a swing voter is a woke, university-educated middle-aged woman. Georgie Crozier lives in Toorak, David Southwick in Caulfield and Matt Bach in Kew. The privileged problems of Kooyong carry little weight in the suburbs outside the tram tracks.

If Pesutto’s leadership team carried a balance of moderate, conservative, suburban and regional representation, Pesutto might have had a broader perspective on the Deeming issue. Instead, he had an echo chamber jumping up and down at the opportunity to knock off a conservative.

Pesutto ran for preselection multiple times and lost before the Administrative Committee appointed him to the seat of Hawthorn in 2014 over conservative John Roskam. Perhaps the fact that there is very little blue in Pesutto’s teal values is why members of the Liberal Party never backed him into parliament.

Under Pesutto’s leadership, the Party is being dragged further to the left with a dangerous intolerance for any form of centre-right conservatism or ability to prosecute the case for fiscal responsibility needed to win seats in the suburbs and regions.

The Liberal Party is facing an identity crisis. Once jewels in the Liberal Party crown, the wealthy middle-class electorates of Melbourne are no longer occupied by rusted-on Liberal voters but woke upper middle management and bureaucrats.

These seats are disproportionately occupied by political players who have spent most of their careers working for the government. Few have ever worked for themselves or in a small business. They will never understand the pressure of payroll tax, quarterly BAS and the heavy restrictions around hiring and firing staff, nor the frustration of seeing their taxes wasted on public service blowout costs and frivolous government initiatives.

The Liberal Party’s base is in the suburbs and most impacted by the woke socialist ideology of Australia’s ruling elite. The very same people today’s Liberal Party in Victoria grovels to appease.

Meanwhile, the self-employed white-collar professionals, small business owners and tradesmen no longer identify with the Liberals who have been subsumed by big corporations and big government.

Elections are not won and lost on social policy. The voters’ primary concern is what’s left in their bank accounts at the end of each week and whether they can access healthcare, transport and quality education.

So long as the Liberal Party pursues the woke vote, they will continue to alienate their base and leave them swinging in political limbo for decades more to come.

Deeming’s suspension needs to be overturned. There is no basis for it, especially now that it has come to light that Pesutto has rescinded his part of the agreement to issue a statement clearing Deeming of his accusation that she associated with Nazis. An accusation so grave it comprised her safety and that of her family.

In his few short months as leader, Pesutto has set fire to the Liberal Party brand and divided its members.

If he, Bach, Crozier and Southwick continue on this thuggish path of ‘cultural change’ within the Party, they risk diminishing it into a smouldering pile of ashes by the next election. 

Given Pesutto’s contribution to the devasting loss in Aston and his ongoing persecution of Deeming, he should resign.

It’s time for a new leadership team with more experience and a broader perspective.

Stephanie Bastiaan is a Research Fellow with Women’s Forum Australia

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

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