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John Pesutto’s leadership under fresh strain as two further defamation cases loom | Australian politics

PoliticsJohn Pesutto’s leadership under fresh strain as two further defamation cases loom | Australian politics

Victorian opposition leader, John Pesutto, is facing the prospect of three defamation cases amid growing speculation over the future of his leadership of the Liberal party.

British gender-critical and anti-transgender activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull told 3AW radio on Monday she had instructed lawyers to file defamation proceedings against Pesutto this week. Melbourne woman and gender-critical activist Angie Jones – who co-organised an anti-transgender rights rally last March alongside Keen-Minshull – also confirmed she would launch defamation proceedings against Pesutto.

Pesutto is already embroiled in legal action with expelled Liberal MP Moira Deeming and there are reports of a potential leadership spill before parliament returns on Tuesday.

Keen-Minshull helped organise a “Let Women Speak” tour of Australia and New Zealand last year, holding rallies in several cities, claiming that the push for transgender rights was silencing, and discrimination against, women. Deeming and Keen-Minshull both spoke at the rally in Melbourne that was gatecrashed by neo-Nazis, who performed the Sieg Heil salute on the front steps of parliament last March.

In an interview with 3AW after the rally, Pesutto said Deeming had associations with the organisers of the event who had “known links with Nazis, Nazi sympathisers, far-right extremists, white supremacists”.

On Monday, Keen-Minshull accused Pesutto of making “harmful” comments that had affected her and her family.

“You can’t say, really, quite despicable, disgusting lies about someone in order to silence them and intimidate them and get away with it,” she said.

Keen-Minshull said in a free and democratic society women had a right to “speak without being dangerously defamed.”

“While he said these things about me, what he’s actually doing is trying to tell all women that they really do have to shut up. And that’s what’s happening everywhere,” she said.

“I would like a full and frank apology where he admits, not only that he was incompetent in not finding out and factchecking that the things he saids were lies, but also that when he was told they were lies he doubled down and repeated them and just saying them in the first place.”

Pesutto would not comment on the potential legal action on Monday and said he was focused on holding the Allan government to account.

Responding to questions about speculation surrounding his leadership, Pesutto said he “wasn’t sure what all the media frenzy was about”. Asked if he was confident he would not face a leadership spill on Tuesday, Pesutto said “yes”.

Pesutto told reporters he was focused on his role as opposition leader.

“If you can get sued out of a job, no one’s going to stand for leadership,” he said.

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Keen-Minshull’s mooted legal action comes weeks after the departure of two senior staff from Pesutto’s office, which some MPs labelled “shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic”.

Deeming, who was expelled from the Liberal party room last year, is suing Pesutto over a series of media releases, press conferences and radio interviews he gave after she spoke at the rally.

The two-week defamation trial is scheduled to be held in the federal court in September. Pesutto on Monday released further details about donations to his legal fighting fund, which includes three former Liberal premiers. Other names released via his parliamentary return on Monday include property investor and philanthropist Jason Yeap and former state director of the Liberal party John Ridley.

Deeming’s lawyers have drawn on a 15-page document Pesutto’s office circulated to Liberal MPs and the media when he moved to expel Deeming from the party room and argued his comments conveyed 67 imputations, including that the MP “supports, sympathises with or associates with white supremacists and neo-Nazis”, and that she is a white supremacist or neo-Nazi.

In his defence, Pesutto has categorically denied this, arguing he “repeatedly and unequivocally acknowledged publicly that he does not believe Deeming to be a neo-Nazi, a white supremacist, or anything of similar substance or effect”.

But he has admitted to conveying 16 imputations, including that Deeming associated with speakers at the event who had “known links with neo-Nazis and white supremacists” and that she is not a “fit and proper person to be a member of the Victorian parliamentary Liberal party” under his leadership.

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