Divisions within the Victorian Liberal Party over the expulsion of controversial MP Moira Deeming have spilled into the party’s state conference, where the MP’s supporters booed and heckled Opposition Leader John Pesutto.
- A small group of Ms Deeming’s supporters chanted “shame” during Mr Pesutto’s speech to the conference
- Others in the room gave the embattled leader a standing ovation after his speech calling for the party to be inclusive and welcoming
- Ms Deeming, who now sits in the upper house as a crossbench MP, is taking defamation action against Mr Pesutto
The Liberal state council was meeting in Bendigo for the first time since Ms Deeming was ousted from the parliamentary party room.
When Mr Pesutto took the podium to address the crowd, dozens of people stood up in the audience chanting “shame”, as others walked out.
One member held up a sign saying “Pesutto deemed a bully”.
“Friends, I am of this party,” Mr Pesutto told the crowd during his speech.
“Rubbish!” someone shouted back.
Among those interrupting Mr Pesutto’s speech was former Liberal candidate Peter Killin, who quit the federal election race in 2019 after it was revealed he had encouraged conservative Christians to “infiltrate” the party and prevent gay people from being elected to office and party positions.
While the majority of those in the room rose to their feet to offer the embattled leader a standing ovation, others audibly scoffed as he urged the party to be inclusive and welcoming.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Pesutto said he was “very moved by the two standing ovations that occurred during my speech”.
“If there were people that had different views, that’s a matter for them,” he said.
The opposition had hoped to focus attention on Victoria’s upcoming budget, which is expected to be filled with serious spending cuts in a bid to pay down state debt.
Mr Pesutto announced a Coalition government would hold a comprehensive review into Victoria’s tax system, including a review into payroll tax and stamp duty.
Victorian Liberal Party president Greg Mirabella told those gathered the party “had to change” and unite if it wanted to win office again, taking aim at those who took internal party grievances to the media.
He said he recently looked at newspaper coverage dedicated to the Victorian Liberal Party’s internal disputes and found a selection which took up column space worth $58,000.
“That’s $58,000 the Labor Party does not have to spend on trashing our brand, we do it for ourselves,” he said.
“This is a message that all members and all members of parliament must hear and must begin to act on.”
Backers of Deeming call on Pesutto to resign
A number of the Liberal Party members who walked out of Mr Pesutto’s address said they were from the western metropolitan region Ms Deeming represented and were “disgusted” by the way she had been treated by the party.
“She knows the west, she looks after us and I think she’s been treated appallingly,” party member Jennifer McPherson said.
Fellow member Marie Cagalj said she felt Mr Pesutto’s handling of the situation was “absolutely disgraceful”.
“At the very least, be given the benefit of the doubt, at the very least investigate and understand what had occurred,” she said.
Several members said they would like to see Mr Pesutto step down and be replaced by Berwick MP Brad Battin.
Outside, Ms Deeming’s supporters handed out printouts of an interview the upper house MP gave to the Herald Sun last weekend.
In a statement posted to Twitter on Saturday night, Ms Deeming said the issue was beyond her.
“Reporting on events at the Victorian Liberal State Council today predictably revolved around the rise and fall of individual careers,” she said.
“I think it’s important to remember that this issue isn’t just about me. It’s about every woman and every girl in Victoria.
“I will continue to fight for these values, and I remain a proud Liberal.”
Bitter fallout led to MP’s expulsion from parliamentary party
Ms Deeming’s expulsion came after a weeks-long public stoush with Mr Pesutto following her attendance at an anti-trans-rights rally gatecrashed by neo-Nazis.
After Ms Deeming’s expulsion a little over a week ago, the Liberal leader said he wanted to draw a line in the sand under the matter, and focus the party’s attention on issues relevant to voters.
But Ms Deeming, who has flagged a defamation lawsuit against Mr Pesutto, last weekend said she felt “completely betrayed” by the expulsion and had no plans to hand in her Liberal Party membership.
“I will never resign. I will never quit. I will not do their dirty work for them, I have much too much dignity for that,” she said.
In a defamation concerns notice sent to Mr Pesutto on the eve of her expulsion, Ms Deeming asked the Liberal leader to publish an apology to her for making public statements suggesting she was associated with neo-Nazis.
Mr Pesutto has rejected those calls, saying he had never suggested that and therefore no apology was necessary.
How did we end up here?
- July 2022: City of Melton councillor Moira Deeming is preselected to contest the Western Metropolitan Region for the Liberal Party at the upcoming state election. Then-party leader Matthew Guy defends the preselection choice amid controversy over her views on transgender rights.
- November 2022: Moira Deeming is elected to the state’s upper house.
- February: In her inaugural speech to parliament, Ms Deeming says she’s a former teacher who comes from a family with a rich Labor tradition, but concern over individual rights being “sacrificed for coerced unity” drove her to the Liberal Party’s philosophy. She identifies concerns over transgender rights and treatments as a key area of focus for her.
- March 18: Ms Deeming attends an anti-transgender-rights rally at Parliament House, which is gatecrashed by neo-Nazis who perform Hitler salutes on the steps of Parliament. Ms Deeming denounces the actions of the masked men, later adding she was “horrified”.
- March 20: Victorian Liberal leader John Pesutto announces plans to expel Ms Deeming from the party. The issue he identifies is her involvement at a rally organised by activists he says had publicly associated with neo-Nazi figures. Ms Deeming defends herself, arguing she did “nothing wrong” and rejecting the suggestion any organisers were involved with the men who gatecrashed the protest.
- March 27: At a Liberal partyroom meeting, Moira Deeming is handed a nine-month suspension over her involvement in the rally, a compromise John Pesutto said was the result of “concessions” from Ms Deeming. Ms Deeming says her attendance was an “error of judgement” and says she has consistently and repeatedly condemned the “heinous views” expressed by neo-Nazis. She also reinforces her support for “the many diverse communities in Victoria” and states she is innocent of “any bigotry whatsoever toward the LGBTQI+ community”.
- March 28: After Ms Deeming publicly reassures protest organisers she never condemned them, Mr Pesutto warns the first-term MP she is “not off to a good start” on her suspension. Mr Pesutto knocks back suggestions the saga has dented his authority as leader.
- May 4: Tensions are reignited after Ms Deeming tells Mr Pesutto she plans to launch a legal challenge to her suspension, claiming “false allegations” were made about her associating with Nazism or bigotry. Mr Pesutto rebuffs the threat of legal action, saying nothing in a dossier circulated in March accused her of being a Nazi or having Nazi sympathies.
- May 6: Two days later, Ms Deeming walks back her intention to launch legal action, saying “I have never once considered suing the Liberal Party” and she only sought legal assistance to negotiate details of her suspension. Five MPs — former leader Matthew Guy, James Newbury, Cindy McLeish, Roma Britnell and Wayne Farnham — move an expulsion motion against Ms Deeming, to be voted on May 12.
- May 11: Ms Deeming sends Mr Pesutto a defamation concerns notice flagging potential legal action. The letter calls upon Mr Pesutto to withdraw the next day’s expulsion motion and issue a public apology to Ms Deeming.
- May 12: Liberal MPs vote to expel Ms Deeming from the parliamentary team, which Mr Pesutto hails as a “turning point” for the embattled opposition.
- May 14: Ms Deeming says she feels she was “relentlessly hunted” in the lead-up to her expulsion from the parliamentary party room and has no intention to quit her Liberal Party membership.