John Pesutto – what are his chances?

Election night TV coverages blur into one big indigestible mass as the years go by. Yet every now and again a few stand out.

For progressives it was the sinking feeling as Scott Morrison won in 2019 and the clear early indication from Penny Wong’s body language. For Victorians it was probably the sight of John Pesutto, serving as an expert commentator on the ABC coverage while losing his Hawthorn seat in the Andrews landslide.

At the time many people commented on what a pity it would be as he looked like a plausible and likely candidate for Opposition Leader in a new Parliament.

Recently he appeared as a guest at a Melbourne Forum function. Normally all Forum functions operate on a Chatham House Rule basis but Pesutto waived that requirement and agreed to attendees reporting what he said.

But what he said in detail was probably less important than his considered and insightful presentation – something we have rarely seen from Liberal Leaders in recent years.

As someone who has lived in Victoria under a number of Premiers it is interesting to reflect on how Pesutto may compare.

Henry Bolte was the first the blog was really aware of. With two school friends the blog went to a community hall in Glenroy (then an unsewered unpaved roads suburb) where Bolte was speaking. We asked a couple of questions and Bolte – shrewd as ever referred to us as teachers even though we were obviously young secondary students – and was gracious and expressed his pleasure that we had attended. He didn’t answer the questions needless to say but we were chuffed and disarmed to be treated as adults.

No current day Premier could, as Bolte did, have cigarettes, alcohol and racehorses as his primary hobbies. More importantly his record will be forever scarred by the hanging of Ronald Ryan – an act driven not be any sense of justice but one taken because he could and wanted to make a point. For those too young to remember him the late Peter Blazey’s Bolte biography is a superb book.

After Bolte we had a total contrast in Dick Hamer. Cultured, intelligent, progressive – all the things Bolte and current day Liberals tend not to be. But Bolte should be credited with having the political sense to recognise that Hamer, however different, was ideal for the political times. Hamer is also the subject of a superb biography – this one by Tim Colebatch.

Since then it was been an odds and sods. Lindsay Thompson never looked the part in the new TV age but will always be remembered for his astonishing courage in the Faraday School kidnapping hostage crisis. A colleague, Alan Hunt, who is another who would look out of place among contemporary Liberals, said of Thompson that he was a “modest family man.”

However, dodgy land deals and others scandals hastened the end of the long Liberal era.

Then came John Cain and Labor. It was a progressive government which was undone by the concurrent financial crisis and the implosion of the State Bank and its Tricontinental investment banking subsidiary. The dogs were barking about Tricontinental and the blog pointed out the word around in financial circles to then Treasurer, Rob Jolly, at a Budget breakfast but was told it didn’t understand investment banking.

The achievements of Joan Kirner, Victoria’s first female Premier, were drowned out by the sort of misogyny which confronted Julia Gillard. Cynics pointed out that Labor had finally turned to a woman only when things had become desperate.

Others included Jeff Kennett – enough said – although admittedly he could be friendly and funny at times and Ted Baillieu was a civilised and intelligent Premier who never looked comfortable in the role.

Steve Bracks was probably the ALP’s – and one of Victoria’s – most admired recent Victorian Premiers defeating Jeff Kennett after successfully negotiating with independents – a process for which Jeff Kennett was ill-equipped. A lot of Bracks’ ultimate success was built on the huge Labor Listens grassroots campaign launched by John Brumby and John Thwaites.

Dan Andrews has been the most successful in terms of outright election wins – particularly in staring down the vicious campaigns of the Murdoch media and triumphing over them with his third election win and an increased majority. But whether he will still be there in four years’ time is moot.

Jacinta Allen, the Deputy Premier, will most probably take over as Premier by the next election but who knows – perhaps Dan will set out to match Henry Bolte for longevity. If he does it might be a case of a bridge too far.

Meanwhile, Pesutto may be the best chance for many years for the Liberal Party to actually win or at least get a bit closer. But his moderation and obvious intelligence presents a profound paradox when you consider that the Victorian Liberal Party is plagued by right wingers, fundamentalist Christian and other religious groups all practising entrism – as the Trotskyists used to term similar activity involving infiltrating organisations.

The end result is that we have a dysfunctional Right wing party with a small membership out of step with Victorian social and political opinion and a Leader who is both moderate and rational. Murdoch media will probably try to force him to the right but they are an increasingly ineffective voice in Victorian politics.

The next election is a long way away. In 1988 United States Republican vice-presidential candidate, Dan Quayle (the one who couldn’t spell potato), was put down by Senator Lloyd Bentsen, when he mentioned JFK, saying “you’re no Jack Kennedy”.

In 2022 Pesutto it is fair to say is no Dick Hamer and wouldn’t claim to be. But this son of Italian migrants just might have some of the Hamer qualities however different their backgrounds are.

It’s early days yet but Pesutto might be the first effective opponent Labor has had for years – if the Liberal Party rank and file don’t stuff it up for him.