Battle for Victorian Liberal leadership on a knife-edge ahead of ballot

Contest between Brad Battin and John Pesutto described by several MPs as a ‘fight for the soul of the party’

The contest between Brad Battin and John Pesutto for the leadership of the Victorian Liberal party is on a knife-edge, with both men confident they will emerge from Thursday’s ballot successful.

The ballot has been described by several Liberal MPs as the “fight for the soul of the party” following its crushing loss at last month’s state election.

The Liberal party went to the election hoping to improve its lower house representation after the 2018 “Danslide” but its total number of seats will probably remain unchanged. 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.

Both Battin and Pesutto have argued the Liberal party struggled to articulate its values at the election, though they have offered alternative solutions to grow its constituency.

Battin said if elected leader he would focus the Liberals’ efforts on “aspirational” voters in Melbourne’s growing outer suburbs and multicultural groups, while Pesutto said the party needed to develop attractive policies that have broad appeal.

Sources close to the leadership hopefuls have claimed they each have the support of enough MPs to win the ballot, though Guardian Australia understands there are still several who are undecided that could sway the result, including Liberal candidates yet to be formally declared winners.

“Both probably claim that they have the numbers – we know that’s not the case,” said one Liberal MP, who asked not to be named so they could speak freely.

“There are a number of our colleagues that I would still be putting in the undecided or unknown category, including several of the candidates that are invited but yet to be declared winners.”

Another MP said the vote would be “much tighter than people think”.

“Regardless of the result, this isn’t going to be the salve the party thinks it will be,” they said.

“When you look at the structural collapse of our vote, the generational divide among voters, the fact young people and women are deserting us – no one policy or leadership change is going to fix that. There needs to be wholesale change.”

Thirty-three MPs and candidates have been invited to Thursday’s party room meeting, though it is unclear if all will attend.

They include the upper house candidates Manju Hanumantharayappa, Trung Luu, Joe McCracken and Nick McGowan – who are second on Liberal upper house tickets. The result in the upper house is not expected to be known until Monday.

David Farrelly, who has a narrow lead in Pakenham, has also been invited to attend, as has Wayne Farnham, the Liberal candidate for Narracan, where the election has been deferred until a later date after the death of a candidate.

A source close to Pesutto said he had received “phenomenal support from the class of 2022 MPs”, including Sam Groth, Jess Wilson and Evan Mulholland.

He is also believed to have the support of Matt Bach, Georgie Crozier, David Davis, Michael O’Brien and Brad Rowswell, with the latter among a crowded field of MPs running for the deputy leadership position.

“There is a real understanding among new MPs that the stuff we have been doing hasn’t worked. We’ve lost three elections in a row – [and] five from the last six. More of the same won’t cut it,” one MP said.

Battin’s supporters include MPs aligned to Bev McArthur, Ryan Smith, Richard Riordan.

An MP close to Battin refuted the idea the ballot was split along “political, generational or ideological lines”.

“There are quite a few of us who have been through a couple of depressing losses now and we know we need to change the way we do business,” they said. “When things aren’t working out, we have to change things up – that’s what this is – a change of approach.”


Benita Kolovos

The GuardianTramp

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