Liberal Party leadership contest has broader consequences for Victorians

It would be hard to argue that the Victorian Liberal Party, as it stands today, is anything but a dysfunctional rump of a once-dominant political force, desperately looking for direction out of the wilderness.

With its former leader Matthew Guy having bowed out after two electoral drubbings at the hands of Labor, on Thursday the Liberal party room – what is left of it – must come together and decide on who will rebuild the Liberal brand in this state.

Liberal leadership contenders John Pesutto and Brad Battin.Credit:The Age

At a time when Premier Daniel Andrews has just cemented his position as the dominant political player in Victoria, many would view the Liberal leadership as a poisoned chalice.

The to-do list is extensive: rebuild the party’s membership and administration, unify its dispirited MPs, select a credible shadow ministry and, most importantly, deepen its policy platform to attract enough voters to give it a credible chance of a return to power.

That is an undertaking not of months, but years, and one that is paramount to the future prosperity of Victoria.

Currently, Victoria could well be described as a one-party state. It’s a well-repeated fact that Labor has been in power for all but four years since the turn of the century. And with the Coalition so far behind in electoral seats, it could take two more elections, or eight more years, before it regains power.

That may hearten Labor supporters but, in practice, such dominance can be unhealthy for democracy. The political system works best when there is a robust contest of ideas and both sides of politics are given an opportunity to refresh and reimagine how power is wielded.

With this in mind, the Liberals must choose between John Pesutto, a leading moderate who managed to stave off a teal candidate to retake the blue-chip suburb of Hawthorn, and Brad Battin, a former police officer and Bakers Delight store owner who holds the seat of Berwick in Melbourne’s outer east and is looking to conservative MPs for support.

Both have little to no experience in office. Battin became an MP in 2010 when former Liberal premier Ted Baillieu came to power, but managed to secure promotion off the backbench only after the Coalition lost office.

Pesutto won Hawthorn in 2014 and was immediately appointed as shadow attorney-general, before losing his seat in 2018. Considering the task at hand, these are thin political CVs.

But that has not stopped them spruiking their views on the way forward. Battin has set his sights on wooing Melbourne’s growth corridors by appealing to aspirational voters on issues such as housing affordability. Pesutto claims his centrist views would help retain the inner and middle Melbourne seats the party won, as well as appeal to the city’s sprawling suburbs and the regions.

Our state political team reports that the party room is split almost evenly, suggesting both candidates will have to tread carefully because of the vulnerability of their mandate.

It’s going to be a hard slog for either candidate. But four years is an eternity in politics, and Labor will have no shortage of headwinds during that time. With inflation showing few signs of dissipating, cost of living pressures will continue to bite into household budgets; the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission has yet to publish three investigations that include questioning of Andrews; and Labor’s reliance on economic growth to pay off the ballooning state debt appears more wishful thinking than strategy.

While The Age does not believe it should be in the business of telling Liberal MPs who they should support, it does hope that when gathering to select a new leader they weigh up what is best for Victoria and not just the trading of political favours or adhering to factional deals.

The future state of our democracy may well depend on it.

Michael Bachelard sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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