Liberals play down leadership tensions after former rival’s ‘weird’ press conference

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Opposition Leader John Pesutto has distanced himself from his former Liberal leadership rival’s attempt to reignite scrutiny over a 2013 car crash involving Premier Daniel Andrews.

On Sunday – the day after the Liberal Party won a crucial byelection – Brad Battin, the opposition’s spokesman for police, corrections and crime prevention, took part in a press conference alongside Colin Robertson, a self-described amateur Sherlock Holmes and professional product engineer who believes there are inconsistencies in Andrews’ account of the crash.

Opposition Leader John Pesutto (left) and the opposition’s spokesman on police, Brad Battin.Credit: The Age

Three sources familiar with the situation confirmed that the opposition leader’s team expressed annoyance at the timing of Battin’s involvement in a media story on Sunday and were unaware he was taking part in a press conference the day after the Warrandyte byelection win.

Battin, who lost the leadership to Pesutto in December by just one vote, has referred the 10-year-old case to the Independent Broad-Based Anti Corruption Commission (IBAC).

“The stories given by Mr and Mrs Andrews does not match with the evidence that has been hidden from the Victorian people for many years since the crash,” Battin said he wrote in his letter to IBAC.

Battin’s concerns relate to the handling of the Andrews’ crash, which occurred on the Mornington Peninsula in 2013. The premier has always said that the cyclist involved collided with the side of his family’s car. But the cyclist, Ryan Meuleman – who was 15 at the time – is now suing the law firm that represented him at the time, Slater & Gordon, for breaching its duties by failing to conduct “a full and proper investigation into the circumstances”.

The Age has spoken to more than six members of the shadow cabinet, including some members of the leadership team, who confirmed that while Pesutto’s office was made aware of the referral to the integrity watchdog, it wasn’t given prior knowledge of the press conference until hours before it started.

On Monday, Pesutto was questioned about the referral but did not accuse Battin of undermining his leadership.

Pesutto said while it was “more than a curiosity” that police are alleged to have completed their investigation without talking to the person first on the scene, it was now a matter for the state’s integrity body.

“It’s gone back to IBAC now,” he told radio station 3AW. “So IBAC will be looking at the matter. And I think it’s best that it do its work and investigate it and report on it.”

Liberal MP Brad Battin, a former police officer, speaking during Sunday’s press conference.Credit: Paul Jeffers

By contrast, Battin – a former leadership rival to Pesutto – has said he has “genuine concerns” about the matter and has questioned the investigation by Victoria Police.

“Victorians deserve the answers now,” Battin demanded on Sunday.

Normally, alerts for media appearances by members of the opposition frontbench are sent via a centralised text message service. But the alert for Sunday’s event in Cheltenham was from an independent communications consultant.

Several of Battin’s colleagues questioned the timing of the press conference and lack of consultation with shadow cabinet members beforehand.

One frontbench MP, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss party matters, described Battin’s press conference as a “freelance job”, and said it was “just weird”.

“At some point, senior members of an opposition need to decide if they’re going to be the alternative government or spend time with the conspiracy theorists. It was not authorised,” the shadow minister said.

Another frontbencher said the normal process when holding a press conference was to inform the leader’s office days before to ensure it wouldn’t clash with another event, and for media advisers to prepare to alert the relevant media and send out any audio or press releases.

“Most of that stuff is done centrally,” one frontbencher said. “It’s rightful to say, what the f— is he [Battin] doing?”

However, the frontbencher also described Battin as a “team player” and said his 2021 leadership challenge against Michael O’Brien was “out of character”.

“He’s not going to engineer a spill, but I am sure he still has ambitions.”

Robertson, the product engineer at Sunday’s press conference, said he learnt the event was going ahead “three or four” days in advance.

“I was simply told Sunday, and that seemed good to me,” he said. “I just want the facts to come to light.”

The event followed a rare win for the Victorian Liberal Party on Saturday, when its candidate Nicole Werner claimed a decisive victory in the Warrandyte byelection, in what could have been a test of Pesutto’s leadership.

John Pesutto congratulates Nicole Werner on her win in the Warrandyte byelection on Saturday night.Credit: Luis Ascui

Ahead of polling day, a small group of conservative Liberals – unhappy with the direction of the party under Pesutto – had speculated that a significant drop in the party’s primary vote could spark leadership speculation.

With Labor not fielding a candidate in the byelection, the Liberal vote soared, with the primary vote up by 10 per cent from 47.35 per cent to 57.38.

In March 2021, Battin engineered a spill against then-leader O’Brien, which he lost 22 votes to nine. Battin ran for the leadership again after last year’s election loss and was narrowly defeated by Pesutto 17 votes to 16, but retained a position on the frontbench.

While some colleagues disapproved of Battin’s strategy, the matter was not raised in the opposition’s shadow cabinet meeting on Monday morning, according to several MPs who attended.

Battin was contacted for comment.

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