A loss in the Warrandyte byelection would spell the end of Pesutto’s leadership

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Thursday marked six months since John Pesutto took over as leader of the troubled Victorian Liberal Party. It was never meant to go like this.

Pesutto, who fought hard to win back his seat of Hawthorn, went on to win the party’s leadership by just one vote. From there, things were meant to improve.

John Pesutto at a Hawthorn polling booth in November 2022. Credit: Eddie Jim

Instead, polling has worsened, Pesutto has endured three partyroom votes which were framed as tests of his leadership, and he is facing a legal battle against Moira Deeming, who is preparing a third defamation concerns notice ahead of a legal fight.

While brave, Pesutto’s hamfisted attempt at modernising the party by pushing ahead with the suspension then expulsion of Deeming has amplified the chaos and resulted in an embarrassing walkout by her supporters at the party’s recent state council meeting.

Ryan Smith has announced he is quitting parliament after 16 years in politics, triggering a byelection.Credit: Eddie Jim

The past six months have taken a toll on JP, as he is known internally. That’s not to say he didn’t anticipate some drama. He knew his plans to rebuild the Liberals into a more compassionate and considered alternative would be hard.

But he was banking on the time, and clear air, to turn the ship around. After all, he would have four years before any electoral test, right?


Ryan Smith’s decision to pull the pin on his 16-year career just six months after the election, triggering a byelection in Warrandyte, will be a critical test for Pesutto. And the timing couldn’t be worse.

The most recent survey for The Age by Resolve Strategic shows Labor’s primary vote has jumped by 5 percentage points since November to 42 per cent – 12 points clear of the opposition.

According to pollsters, who spend their days chewing the fat with voters, the mere mention of the Victorian Liberal Party triggers laughter. They say this is not a reflection on Pesutto but down to a broader demographic and brand problem.

On paper, Warrandyte should be a safe Liberal seat. In 2010, Smith won the electorate in Melbourne’s outer north-east with a 59 per cent primary vote. But recent disunity, a lack of brand appeal and a growing Chinese community in the area means the Liberals can no longer be complacent.

Pesutto has declared the Liberals will “throw everything” at the byelection, to be held before September. But in the eight days since Smith’s resignation Pesutto is yet to make a public trip to the electorate, which is making his colleagues nervous.

He knows that losing the seat would end his time as leader.

Working in his favour is Labor’s indecision about whether to run a candidate. Having never really considered Warrandyte as a winnable seat, Labor is conducting pricey live-interview polling before making a call.

While there is some resistance from party officials, a growing number of Labor MPs are buoyed by the win in the outer suburban federal seat of Aston and pushing the party to contest the seat.

From left: Labor’s Mary Doyle, defeated Liberal candidate Roshena Campbell and Liberal leader Peter Dutton in Aston.Credit: Penny Stephens

Most of the Warrandyte electorate sits inside the federal seat of Menzies, where Labor recorded a 6 per cent swing at the May 2022 election. Menzies is on Anthony Albanese’s list of target seats at the next federal election, which is due between August next year and May 2025.

Contesting Warrandyte would cost Labor hundreds of thousands of dollars (some of which would be reimbursed by the Victorian Electoral Commission) but it could also prove an important data harvesting exercise ahead of the next federal election – even if the state party loses.

Labor MPs are also excited by the prospect of causing a little more drama in Liberal land, but they needn’t worry. Even if they sit this one out, Pesutto faces hurdles ahead.

You could almost hear the moans from Pesutto’s office when former shadow attorney-general Tim Smith – a public critic of Pesutto’s – flirted with the idea of running in Warrandyte. Smith has since dropped out and is backing former Institute of Public Affairs executive director John Roskam, a candidate who is unlikely to spark joy for Pesutto.

Roskam and Pesutto have history, having run against one another for pre-selection in the seat of Hawthorn after former premier Ted Baillieu retired.

As one Liberal frontbencher observed, should Roskam win, MPs would expect him to be elevated to the frontbench. From there, he would likely coalesce conservative supporters and be viewed as a leadership alternative.

With nine candidates vying for the seat, Pesutto will also have to decided who he backs. If preselectors ignore their leader’s choice, it would be seen as another blow to his authority.

If Labor’s aim is to maximise the opposition's pain, while setting themselves up for a bigger federal election win, the party would be foolish to sit this one out.

Regardless, Pesutto’s first six months as opposition leader have been enough to qualify him for an annus horribilis, and it’s only June.

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