‘Come back and lead’? Not quite, but Pesutto wants more than just a comeback
John Pesutto is pouring sugar into his coffee at a cafe on Hawthorn’s Burwood Road and discussing his political ambitions, when a passer-by in his 60s suddenly stops.
“Come back and lead the state,” says the man, recognising Victoria’s former shadow attorney-general. “Why don’t you?”
Former MP and shadow attorney-general John Pesutto wants to return to Parliament next year.Credit:Joe Armao
Pesutto, taking it in his stride, responds: “Thank you sir. That’s very nice of you to say.”
Tell us then, John: do you want to lead the Liberal Party in the hope of one day leading the state?
Not quite, he says.
But the former MP who infamously lost the unlosable seat of Hawthorn while on live TV in 2018 is sure of two things: he wants a comeback and he wants a senior role in Victoria’s Liberal Party. He also has a vision.
“Yes, I plan to run for preselection later this year,” the 50-year-old publicly confirms for the first time.
Survived for now: opposition leader Michael O’BrienCredit:Justin McManus
Pesutto supports O’Brien, and believes he can win the 2022 election. But if he doesn’t, Pesutto is voted back into Parliament and O’Brien steps away from the leadership – an outcome even the most cautious gambler would consider a bet on – would Pesutto put his name in the hat?
“I think I’ve just got to get back. There’s so many hurdles and I have certainly learned that you can’t plan too far in advance. I really don’t want to speculate beyond that,” he replies.
“I will say this though. I do want to play a role in some kind of leadership position. You can play a leadership role without having to be the actual leader. You can be a strong, independent, reasonable, sensible voice internally, which is what I would like to do.”
Pesutto took over the seat of Hawthorn from ex-Premier Ted Baillieu in 2014 before losing it in 2018.Credit:Joe Armao
Ruminating in the aftermath of Tuesday’s spill, Liberal MPs who agree that Tuesday was a “line in the sand” – and most do – believe O’Brien will survive until the next election at the least. No clear replacement exists.
Former leader and senior MP Matthew Guy insists he doesn’t want it and remains tarnished by 2018’s thumping defeat. Brad Battin convinced few with his surprise tilt this week (though has refused to rule out another pop).
Tim Smith is ambitious and young – too young, some MPs say – and his “any publicity is good publicity” approach has split opinion.
Three MPs independently suggested this week the Liberal Party’s next leader could come from outside the party room. See: John Pesutto.
Yet it cannot be ignored that it was Pesutto who lost Hawthorn to retiree John Kennedy from a margin of 8.6 per cent, the first time Labor has claimed the seat since 1955.
Labor MP John Kennedy won the seat of Hawthorn from the Liberals for the first time since 1955.Credit:Eddie Jim
As for winning this, or any, election, he says the Liberal Party needs to revolutionise. Pesutto wants a more inclusive party that has a presence deep in the suburbs, promoting old Liberal ideals of individual ambition and reward for effort.
“All people, in all parts of Melbourne and Victoria, should be able to look at us and say: I like what they stand for,” he says.
“I don’t think anybody could seriously look at the electoral outcomes in Victoria since 1999, with just one Liberal government, and say that we don’t need to do so much more.”
He points to the electoral map after the 2018 election as evidence of the party’s narrowing appeal – there’s blue in some affluent inner-city seats and on Melbourne’s eastern outskirts but zero in the northern or western suburbs, home to many working class and migrant families.
Change starts with long-term engagement on the ground with community leaders and members, Pesutto argues.
“They are communities which are aspirational. That is everything the Liberal Party traditionally stands for. Those areas are precisely where we should be working to expand the base of the party.”
Just six of the Liberals’ 31 current MPs are women. But Pesutto stops short of saying preselections, due some time after July this year, should proactively favour gender and ethnically diverse candidates.
“If you look at our membership, it actually is very diverse. I’m confident we’ll see that this year and if we can appeal more broadly and get more MPs in Parliament, that will become clearer,” he says.
“I’m not going to pretend that we don’t have an enormous job. But is it doable? Absolutely.”
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