Four years after losing his seat of Hawthorn live on television, John Pesutto has not only reclaimed it but he has also been elected leader of the Victorian Liberal party.
He says the journey proves he has what it takes to lead the Liberals to an election victory in 2026, after three consecutive losses to Daniel Andrews’ Labor government.
“If it’s one thing you ought to know about me, I’ve been knocked down but I know how to get up and fight my way back,” Pesutto told reporters following Thursday’s leadership ballot.
“I know the scale of the challenge before us.”
Pesutto, considered a moderate, defeated Berwick MP Brad Battin, the preferred conservative candidate, in what was an incredibly close vote attended by MPs and several candidates yet to be formally declared winners.
Some MPs suggested Pesutto won by a single vote against Battin, with the total tally 17-16.
Pesutto said he didn’t know what the margin was but knew it was “enough” and urged unity.
“We all know that coming out of a really painful election result, we’ve got to work together,” he said.
“People have different views. Those views need to be respected and they need to be heard and acted upon. I expect and embrace the idea that there are going to be different views about how we go forward.”
Pesutto replaces Matthew Guy, who led the Liberals to defeat at last month’s state election, where the party was expected to increase its lower house representation; instead, its total number of seats remains unchanged from 2018’s “Danslide”.
Its primary vote has also dropped below 30% for the first time since the 1950s and there are fears demographic shifts could see this further deteriorate.
Thursday’s leadership ballot had been described by several Liberal MPs as a “fight for the soul of the party”, with Battin proposing a focus on Melbourne’s growing outer suburbs and multicultural groups to increase its constituency, while Pesutto said it needed to develop attractive policies that have broad appeal.
Pesutto returned to this theme during his press conference, saying under his leadership, the Liberal party will be “a broad party that reaches all parts of our state”.
“We can win everywhere across our state. We just need to build our organisation, we need to get the culture right and we need to generate that winning psychology,” he said.
“I know it’s hard after three election losses but I can promise you we’re going to spend every day working towards November 2026 and a victory then.”
Pesutto said his priorities were growing the Liberal membership across the state, developing a stronger presence in the outer suburbs and offering “constructive alternatives” to the Labor government.
He said the Liberals needed more women and multicultural members to join its ranks and did not rule out quotas to increase female representation in parliament.
Pesutto’s new leadership team is made up of the deputy Liberal leader, David Southwick, and Georgie Crozier, elected upper house leader, with Matt Bach as her deputy.
Pesutto is the Liberal’s fifth leader since Andrews secured the Labor leadership in 2010 and Thursday’s vote was the third leadership spill since March last year.
After the vote, Battin, who unsuccessfully challenged former leader Michael O’Brien last year, said: “I will back John Pesutto 100%.”
“The party has chosen John Pesutto to move forward and I’ll get behind him.
“I’m a very proud Liberal. The only message I send to all of my colleagues: Get behind John. Never take the Liberal logo off any of your signs. I don’t care what electorate you’re running in.”
It appeared to be a veiled criticism of Southwick, who displayed corflutes during the campaign without Liberal party branding.
“There is no question right across the country that the Liberal party brand needs work. If we didn’t think that, we’ve got our heads in the sand,” Southwick responded.