Moderate John Pesutto to ramp up Victorian Liberal leadership campaign after securing seat

Three candidates are vying to take over the leadership of the Victorian Liberals after its crushing loss in the state election, including the moderates’ great hope John Pesutto, who has reclaimed the seat of Hawthorn for the party.

Pesutto is likely to ramp up efforts to win over his colleagues in the coming days, after a tight race against teal independent candidate, Melissa Lowe, who on Wednesday congratulated the former shadow attorney general on his successful campaign.

Pesutto, a moderate, faces two rivals for the leadership – Brad Battin and Richard Riordan – from the more conservative wing of the party.

The duo’s supporters have pointed to Pesutto’s “baggage” from the Liberal’s law and order-focused 2018 campaign as a weakness, as well as his seat’s marginal status.

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But several Liberal sources have said Pesutto could help renew the party and create generational change, with newer MPs playing a key role.

This could include Sandringham MP, Brad Rowswell, who has confirmed he will run for the deputy leader position, and upper house MP Matt Bach.

Newly elected MPs Sam Groth and Jess Wilson – as well as former federal MP Chris Crewther, who has a narrow lead in Mornington – could also be elevated straight to shadow cabinet.

The jostling came as Ryan Smith withdrew his candidacy for leader and threw his support behind Battin, who he described as sharing a similar vision for the future direction of the party.

Battin, who unsuccessfully challenged Michael O’Brien for the leadership in 2021, has argued the party should focus its efforts on new growth corridors and engaging with multicultural groups.

Riordan is understood to have sizeable support from conservative Liberals, but said the party needs to be as “as broadly representative as possible”.

“There are some really good things that we can take out of this election,” he said. “The Coalition message sold really well in regional Victoria and it sold really well in the inner city, where the media were saying we had lost touch with. We’ve proved that wrong.”

Riordan pointed to Melbourne’s bayside seats of Brighton, Caulfield and Sandringham, where Liberal MPs managed to increase their margins, despite challenges from independent candidates.

In those seats, as well as in Hawthorn and Kew, Liberal candidates largely ignored advice from campaign headquarters and ran months-long, hyper-local campaigns.

They also spruiked the Coalition’s commitment to legislating an emissions reduction target of 50% by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050.

“Where our guys were able to get out, talk about issues that matter to people, be the sensible, reasonable ground … we did really well,” Riordan said.

“Where we were reliant on a generic, statewide approach at the last minute, without long term engagement with communities, we haven’t succeeded.”

He said the party lacked a presence in the outer suburbs and called for a “complete clean out” within party’s structure.

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Tony Barry, a former senior Liberal staffer who is now with political consultants RedBridge, said the party did not have the option of choosing between the suburbs or the inner city.

“The electoral math is pretty simple – we don’t get to 45 seats in the next few terms unless we are competitive in the so-called teal seats,” Barry said.

“Our problems are not just across geographic areas, they are also across demographics – such as millennials and younger women. The notion that there is some mythical pathway based on postcodes is the same busted-arse thinking that helped get us into this mess.”

The National party has expressed concerns about the performance of the Liberals at the election, with its leader, Peter Walsh, not ruling out leaving the Coalition.

“That’s something that has to be discussed by ourselves and with the Liberal party once they elect their leadership group,” Walsh said on Wednesday.

“We’ve demonstrated with the policy platform and initiatives we took to the election that we can work well together to put the issues that are important to Victorians front and centre.”

The party recorded its best election result since 1943, and looks likely to double its representation in the upper house.