Victoria’s new Liberal leader: the five things to know about John Pesutto

<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

John Pesutto will lead the Victorian Liberals after defeating Brad Battin in a party room ballot, having been described as a moderate within a party that has drifted to the right in recent years.

In his pitch for the leadership, Pesutto argued the Liberals needed to return to the centre and develop policies that will have broad appeal among all Victorians – regardless of what seat they live in.

However, according to some critics, his credentials are anything but progressive.

Here are five things you need to know about Victoria’s new Liberal leader.

1. He learned that he lost his seat while on live TV in 2018

Pesutto is best known for losing his seat of Hawthorn, in Melbourne’s inner-east, while live on television during the 2018 “Danslide” election.

Appearing on the ABC’s election night panel, it became clear he would lose a blue-ribbon seat that had been held by the Liberal party since 1955. He had only won the seat four years earlier, when he replaced former premier Ted Baillieu.

Related: Moderate John Pesutto elected leader of the Victorian Liberal party, defeating Brad Battin in ballot

“You get a short time on the stage in politics,” Pesutto said. “To the people of Hawthorn, I’m very grateful for the time they’ve given me.”

Pesutto was praised by viewers and other panellists, both Labor and Liberal, for his graciousness.

In late 2021, he was preselected as the Liberal’s candidate and spent an entire year campaigning to win back Hawthorn.

Pesutto narrowly defeated the incumbent, Labor’s John Kennedy, and teal independent Melissa Lowe. He now holds the seat by a slim margin of 1.74%.

It is uncommon for the leader of a party to hold a marginal seat and it was a criticism raised by several supporters of Battin.

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2. He was raised in regional Victoria, where his parents had migrated

Pesutto’s father, Luigino, emigrated to Australia in 1961 from Calabria, in southern Italy, with his wife, Antonietta, joining him two years later.

Pesutto is one of six siblings, with the family living for much of his childhood in Traralgon, in the Latrobe Valley.

In his inaugural speech to parliament, Pesutto said his parents came to Australia to create a new life and start a family, and that they did so “without pretension and with complete modesty”.

“They instilled in me the principles that guide me today,” he said.

A father of three daughters – Chiara, Aurelia and Claudia – Pesutto has been married to Betty, who comes from a Greek background, for more than 20 years.

He has said his background has provided him with the ability to relate to anybody.

3. He’s had a varied career

Pesutto joined the Liberal party at 22. But prior to his career in politics, he worked as a lawyer for several years, focusing on industrial relations and employment matters.

He went on to work as counsel to premier Denis Napthine and has also served as chief of staff to David Davis when he was health minister from 2010 to 2014 and as a senior adviser to Baillieu.

He ran unsuccessfully against Josh Frydenberg for preselection in the federal seat of Kooyong prior to the 2010 election, before he was preselected for Hawthorn, defeating John Roskam of the right-wing thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA for the position.

Related: ‘It’s a grey wash’: Liberals frustrated over preselections in NSW and Victoria

During his recent time away from Spring Street, Pesutto wrote for the Age, appeared on a weekly spot on Virginia Trioli’s ABC Radio Melbourne program, set up a consultancy firm Hugo Benice Advisory and took up an honorary post in the University of Melbourne’s school of government.

“Over the last four years, I’ve had a chance to really reflect on how I can be better, how I can be a stronger advocate for the things we believe in,” Pesutto said on Thursday.

“It’s given me a chance to reassess how I might relate even more persuasively to the Victorian people. I come back into the parliament knowing how important it is to get that second chance.”

4. His critics question his credentials as a moderate

Those who are unconvinced of Pesutto’s status as a true moderate generally raise two issues: his previous work with the IPA and comments regarding gang violence made during his time as shadow attorney general.

Related: Federal Liberals say Coalition must lure back women after Victoria state election rout

At the 2018 election, the Liberals ran a law and order campaign with a focus on “African gangs”, which according to an internal review after their crushing loss only influenced 6% of people’s vote, and not necessarily in the party’s favour.

In late 2017, Pesutto told Sky News there was an “over-representation in gang-related violence in Victoria by South Sudanese youth. That’s a fact; even the minister has conceded that”.

In January 2018, he accused the Andrews government of ignoring a “real crisis”, despite police warnings that referring to “gangs” was counter-productive.

Asked on Thursday whether he thought the focus on gangs in 2018 was a mistake, Pesutto said: “We’re just going to focus on the issues that are confronting the Victorian people now. Whilst there were issues at that time, we had an election, there was a result.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time looking at those results in 2018. Our commitment now and certainly under my leadership will be to focus on the things that are of most importance to Victorians now and over the next four years.”

5. He has taken on an enormous challenge

Pesutto takes the reins of the Liberal party as it faces an existential crisis: it’s suffered its third consecutive election loss, with its primary vote dropping below 30% for the first time since the 1950s and fears demographic shifts could see this further deteriorate as young people and women desert the party.

Related: Victorian Labor could surpass 2018 ‘Danslide’ after claiming victory in Pakenham

Internally, there will also be a need to unite MPs, particularly given 16 of the 33 people who voted in the leadership ballot did not vote for him.

It could explain why he committed to reversing former leader Matthew Guy’s ban on newly elected Liberal MP Renee Heath sitting in the party room.

During the election campaign, Guy said she would be excluded after claims were made that she was a lifelong member of the City Builders church, and that it had been directed by its global leader to infiltrate the Coalition.

The church, which is led by Heath’s parents, is opposed to gay, transgender and reproductive rights. Heath has denied having the same views as her parents.

Pesutto stood by the commitment on Thursday.