A lament for John Pesutto

This morning’s news is that, although none of the participants are willing to put in quite those terms, the Victorian Liberal Party has effectively voted no confidence in its leader, John Pesutto. The party room refused to accept Pesutto’s demand for the expulsion of far-right MP Moira Deeming, resolving instead on a “compromise” measure of suspending her for nine months.

Pesutto intends to stay on, but his position for the longer term is now unsustainable.

For perhaps thirty-something years now – roughly and not coincidentally since the end of the Cold War – observers from time to time (including me) have been predicting drama for the Liberal Party. It seemed as if there must surely come a time when its internal tensions would reach a sort of breaking point and there would be a split or some other breakdown.

But it didn’t happen. The party would suffer occasional electoral debacles, but then pick itself up and carry on as if nothing had changed. Way back in 1990 I find myself expressing surprise that it “just continues to muddle along this way, like a firecracker that refuses to explode,” and two years later I note that it “seems quieter now than it has for a long time – the convulsive change I was expecting a few years ago just didn’t happen.”

Over time, however, the shape of the underlying tension solidified. As the party’s mass base mostly disappeared, the membership became less and less representative of the voters at large. It wanted leaders and policies that reflected its prejudices, and if those prejudices were remote from reality, well, so much the worse for the party’s electoral prospects – and for leaders like Pesutto who tried to tack towards the mainstream.

In 2008 the Victorian division released a report on its (dire) condition and proposed remedies, prompting me to deliver this assessment:

No political party engages in such frank public self-examination unless driven to it by desperation. The most important step in psychological change, whether individual or collective, is acknowledging the existence of a problem: the Victorian Liberal Party, after years in denial, may finally have taken that step. …

But the real question is whether structural reform of whatever sort will be enough to save the party.

Like many political documents, the discussion paper is most notable for what it doesn’t say. There is almost no mention of ideas or policies; no suggestion that renewal for the Liberal Party might involve not a reassessment of its structure, but a reassessment of its philosophy and what it actually stands for.

The implicit message from the paper’s authors is that structural degradation has gone so far that the party is simply in no shape to conduct such an examination: the overriding priority is to broaden and expand membership. They may be right about that. But if reform fails, expect the internal debate to get nastier still.

Later that year, when the reforms were adopted, I posed the crucial question: “Will giving more voice to ordinary members just hand power to conservative ideologues? Or will it lead to a membership influx of more mainstream Victorians who will swamp the extremists?” Fourteen years on, we know the answer.

But the party never split; its saner elements just drifted away, and its progressive wing accepted its position as a (barely) tolerated minority. Ted Baillieu and Malcolm Turnbull (twice) had their leadership destroyed by internal enemies, and if they fought back at all, they fought with one hand tied behind their backs. “Empowerment,” as I noted in 2014, “is a two-edged sword, and trying to make a party more representative risks empowering more of the same unrep­re­sentative people that you started with.”

So now Pesutto, who took a stand for what to the ordinary voter must seem the most basic common sense – that someone like Deeming does not belong in a mainstream political party – finds that his colleagues are too scared of their own branch members, or have themselves been too infected by the same madness, to follow him.

We’ll talk about New South Wales tomorrow, but there’s an obvious comparison with the decision yesterday by Matt Kean, that state’s outgoing treasurer, not to stand for his party’s vacant leadership. As a proponent of action on climate change, Kean has become a particular hate figure for the Liberal right; he evidently decided that he would be taking on a fight that he could not win.

Perhaps he should have warned Pesutto.


11 thoughts on “A lament for John Pesutto

  1. This post is just a little bizarre. You say “…that someone like Deeming does not belong in a mainstream political party”. What exactly does Deeming believe that puts her outside the mainstream? Against abortion on demand? I’d say there’s at least 30% fit there. Against voluntary euthanasia? Again, about 30%. Believes that a woman is born that way? 95% or somewhere around there. What is destroying Western politics is that someone who appears intelligent can write this sort of nonsense and believes that someone who is very much mainstream ought to be constrained to some drain on the side. I’m assuming you’re not a member of the Liberal Party, but God help them if you are.


    1. Whether a political position is justifiable is not determined by how much support it has. Lots of people have supported unjustifiable positions in the past, and lots of people still do. If you want to justify a position, you can’t do it successfully by pointing to the number of people who support it.


    2. Ah well, can’t please everyone!
      Look, I don’t know how serious you are in your claim that Deeming is within the mainstream; I find it hard to see how anyone could read her words and maintain that with a straight face. But to spell it out a bit: no, of course being anti-choice doesn’t of itself put you outside the mainstream. But believing that that’s the number one political issue certainly does. Mainstream people can have all sorts of beliefs about trans rights. But obsessing about them the way Deeming does marks you as an extremist. None of this is new; Bernie Finn was already a dress rehearsal for this debate. The party finally got rid of him, and its failure to do the same with Deeming is a sign (albeit not a surprising one) that something has gone very badly wrong.


  2. The Australian left are just as nutty and the outgoing NSW premier is right that it’s time to start fighting them as well. Intimidation – which a form of violence itself – and harassment such as screaming into megaphones at full volume, banging on walls, pouring substances on opponents – including harmful ones like paint – are NOT “peaceful protest” and we should meet such violence with violence. Including lethal force if it needed to stop these increasingly unstable fanatics.

    Oh, and the animal “rights” people including Bandt and Faruqi want racehorses (and other non-sapient organisms) put on the same level as humans.

    We can inform Bandt that since racehorses are considered people, they can be executed as traitors when they break down! 😉


    1. Most of the time, screaming into megaphones is not justified, but sometimes it might be. Most of the time, banging on walls is not justified, but sometimes it might be. Most of the time, pouring paint over people is not justified, but sometimes it might be.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s depressing that Pesutto has decided to suck up this humiliation and stay on as leader. On all normal understandings of these things, he should have resigned. It would have been a better long term career choice, I think. He could let Brad Battin or someone similar take the Liberal party to its next crushing defeat, then return as savior and have a chance of beating what would then be a very old and tired Labor governmemt


    1. Thanks John – Yes, I agree. And if he’d resigned & gone to the back bench it would have brought home to some of the party just what they’d done; he might even have been recalled in another year or two.


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