Has John Pesutto mastered the thankless art of opposition?

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A mere 72 hours before John Pesutto was due to mark 12 months as opposition leader, exiled Liberal Moira Deeming followed through on her threat and launched a defamation case against her former colleague.

It was a fitting end to a year in which Pesutto was constantly derailed by internal politics – often of his own doing – that left him, at times, clinging to his leadership.

Moira Deeming has launched a defamation case against Opposition Leader John PesuttoCredit: Jason South; Darrian Traynor

There’s no doubt being opposition leader is one of the toughest gigs in politics. It’s thankless. You get whacked in parliament, criticised by your colleagues, and – particularly in the first year after an election – belted in the polls.

There is a daily temptation to stick your head up and oppose for opposition’s sake, which serves to remind colleagues that you are still there. But go too negative, and you’ll struggle to convince the electorate that you can lead the state.

So one year on, has Pesutto mastered the art of opposition?

From a straw poll of Victorian Liberals MPs, there’s general agreement that while Pesutto “had a strong first quarter” he has never recovered from the Deeming issue, one that will continue to dog him into 2024.

For those who have had the good fortune not to live the trials and tribulations of this saga, it kicked off in March when Deeming, then a Liberal MP, addressed the Let Women Speak rally on the steps of state parliament that was gatecrashed by neo-Nazis.

Moira Deeming addresses the Let Women Speak rally in Melbourne earlier this year.Credit: Youtube

Days later, Pesutto moved to expel Deeming from the parliamentary party room after his office distributed a dossier stating that some of the rally’s organisers have been “publicly associated with far-right-wing extremist groups, including neo-Nazi activists”. Deeming was suspended from the party room for nine weeks, but she was not successfully expelled until May 12. She launched her defamation case on December 5.

This sloppy handling of the controversy – which Pesutto stands by – was meant to signal to the broader electorate that the Liberals were no longer mean and nasty, but inclusive and modern. Instead, all it did was alienate him from his federal colleagues and anger the party’s conservative base.

From then on, nothing else really mattered.

A video posted on Pesutto’s social media accounts last week sought to remind us of the Coalition’s achievements in the past year. And some of them are worth celebrating. In August, the Liberals won unanimous support from the crossbench to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the Commonwealth Games cancellation debacle.

While the committee itself has been ineffectual, the probe was an important accountability measure owed to Victorians.

A co-ordinated and disciplined attack by the Coalition also resulted in the Victorian government watering down its plan to strip 110 private schools of their long-standing payroll tax exemption.

Pesutto’s video also highlighted his party winning the Narracan and Warrandyte byelections – contests where Labor didn’t field a candidate. It’s a bit of a stretch to claim those wins as achievements. And the other claims in the video aren’t worthy of mention.

On a policy front, shadow cabinet has spent most of the year debating positions on Labor policies, instead of crafting its own. They have given inconsistent responses to the Suburban Rail Loop.

That aside, this strategy isn’t necessarily a bad thing this early in the election cycle. Release good policy too early, and you run the risk of a sustained attack or the government pinching it and claiming credit.

Perhaps a more crucial benchmark for the first year is keeping the party together. At that he has so far succeeded.

To Pesutto’s credit, he inherited a diminished party room that had received a bollocking on election day and whose MPs have forgotten or never experienced the spoils of government.

While rising star Matt Bach’s resignation was a loss, Pesutto has promoted a handful of energised, fresh-faced MPs to the frontbench – among them Sam Groth, Evan Mulholland, Brad Rowswell and Jess Wilson – who seem determined to win government.

Pesutto is also acutely aware of the structural barriers holding the Liberal Party back and is trying to engage voters in suburbs where the Liberals have no infrastructure. He is also determined to get the best candidates in seats early to give the Coalition the best chance in 2026.

But disquiet within the party remains.

Hours after the party’s win in Warrandyte, Brad Battin – who Pesutto beat by one vote for the leadership – attempted to reignite scrutiny over a 2013 car crash involving then-premier Daniel Andrews with an unhinged re-enactment with a blood-splattered cardboard car.

A series of dinners with select media and colleagues this past week suggest Battin’s still keeping his options open.

Pesutto’s blueprint for opposition has its strength, but it relies on him still being in the job on November 28, 2026.

On this, Liberal MPs remain split between those who want stability and think he offers the party its best chance, and those who either want the job for themselves or fear the upcoming defamation case will do too much damage.

But those toey MPs wanting to knock him off next year should look across the chamber.

A leadership change, integrity reports, mounting debt and the cancellation of the Commonwealth Games have wiped four percentage points off Labor’s primary vote in the past six months.

To paraphrase Napoleon, never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake.

Annika Smethurst is state political editor.

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