The slow death of the Victorian Liberal Party

While we wait for results from England’s local elections to slowly come in, we can contemplate the latest extraordinary news from the Victorian Liberal Party – whose leader, John Pesutto, gives the impression (to borrow a line once used of Peter Sellers) of committing suicide in a peculiarly slow and disagreeable fashion.

Readers will recall that back in March Pesutto sought the expulsion of one of his far-right MPs, Moira Deeming, but failed to win over the majority of the party room; instead Deeming was “suspended” for nine months. Rather than rest on her laurels, Deeming has continued to make trouble, yesterday demanding that Pesutto issue a statement clearing her of being a Nazi sympathiser, under the threat that she would otherwise take legal action.

Pesutto refused to issue the statement, and denied that it had been any part of March’s “compromise”. But he was handicapped somewhat by the fact that the secretary to the party room, responsible for the minutes of that meeting, is another far-right member, Renee Heath. On Tuesday Pesutto moved to not accept the relevant minutes and, as he told reporters (according to the Guardian), “the party room overwhelming [sic] agreed that they were not in shape for acceptance.”

Then last night the Age revealed that a group of eight anti-Pesutto MPs, including both Deeming and Heath, had not only met for dinner last weekend in the small township of Waubra (already notorious for lending its name to a climate-denialist foundation), but had posted about it on Facebook. Pesutto’s supporters were publicly dismissive, but seemed to have no obvious strategy to counter the insurgency.

This morning federal leader Peter Dutton took a hand, unhelpfully telling the Victorian party that it needed to “get together and unify”: “I wouldn’t rule out federal intervention and I make it very clear to the Victorian division that I want this mess sorted out as quickly as possible.” Pesutto also took to the airwaves to demand unity: “I’m calling on all MPs to get together and unify, and if they don’t there are processes the party always has at its disposal.”

It seems likely, as several of the reports imply, that Deeming is not actually doing the anti-Pesutto cause any good, and some of her own supporters probably regard her as a loose cannon. But there’s no sign that they are willing to drop her, and even if Pesutto now has the numbers for another attempt at expulsion, the underlying problem is not going away.

Eight MPs might not sound like a lot, but after two successive landslide defeats there aren’t a lot of Liberals left in the party room. Pesutto only won the leadership in the first place by one vote, defeating Brad Battin (another of the Waubra attendees) 17 to 16. But the vote was conducted before counting was complete, and two of those 33 ended up not holding their seats. There are only 31 left (counting Deeming), so eight is a substantial fraction.

And as usual in the Liberal Party, no-one comes to this with clean hands. Previous leader Matthew Guy had promised that Heath would be excluded from the party room due to her extreme views; the only reason she is there now is that Pesutto went back on that decision, either from a desire to distinguish himself from his predecessor or simply from a sense that his position was too precarious to be able to afford to make enemies.

Ideologically, Dutton fits naturally into the camp of Pesutto’s opponents. But having already lost a by-election due, as he would see it, to the Victorians’ incompetence, his main priority is to end the public discord and restore the party to some sort of coherence as a fighting force.

Federal intervention, however, has only a limited capacity to address that problem. It cannot discipline MPs or choose their leadership; at best it could only sort out the organisational wing, in the hope that down the track that would make a difference to preselections and campaign dynamics. While it’s certainly true that the Victorian organisation is dysfunctional, the MPs can’t blame that for their bad behavior – it’s mostly self-generated.

And out in the branches is a depleted membership base, which takes as gospel the demented fantasies of News Corp and insists that its MPs follow suit. And even News Corp, as the Dominion libel case in the United States demonstrated, is now captive to the audience it has created. Malcolm Turnbull put it well this week in the Monthly: “The truth is that Murdoch’s diminishing and ageing audience is large enough for him to monetise, but it is not a large enough constituency to win state or national elections.”

Pesutto may well survive this time, and Dutton, against his own inclinations, may even assist him. But neither of them can win elections as long as they remain hostage to people for whom winning is secondary to tribal warfare.

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2 thoughts on “The slow death of the Victorian Liberal Party

  1. It could be said that the Liberals were unlucky last November, but in fact they brought that result on themselves. By campaigning almost exclusively on anti-Andrews and anti-lockdown sentiment, they did gain some support in traditional Labor areas, but this won them no seats. But their tactics further alienated affluent voters in the eastern suburbs, and this cost them seats.
    Even for the next election, there are only three northern or western suburban Labor seats in possible range – Melton, Yan Yean and Sunbury. The Libs will still have to win back a dozen eastern and southern suburban seats, and some regional seats too. Unless they radically change their strategic approach, this will be very difficult. In short, they need to forget about emulating Trump and go back to emulating Dick Hamer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, agree completely. And even in those outer north-western seats, I doubt that there was much positive enthusiasm for the Liberal message; it was probably much more about discontent for being taken for granted by Labor.

      Liked by 1 person

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