John Pesutto was in year nine when a school visit by a politician inspired his interest in politics. More than 30 years on, he says he’s hoping he’ll have the “privilege of serving” a second term as the Liberal member for Hawthorn.
Interviewed at his Camberwell office, the Shadow State Attorney General and MP for Hawthorn, looks comfortable and relaxed, crossed-legged in his wing back chair.
Having begun his first parliamentary term in 2014, Pesutto says it’s been a “very long road” to get where he is in parliamentary politics.
Pesutto worked for most of his career as a lawyer, having graduated from the University of Melbourne with Law and Commerce degrees in 1994. He got into law school “by one point” and studied with the aim to one day enter politics.
“It’s been very important having a legal background,” he says. “It gives you a broad understanding of government. I had over 20 years of being able to observe other politicians at work and how they run their offices and local party campaigning operations,” Pesutto says.
“Knowing the questions to ask… you can apply forensic skills and training that you receive when you are studying and working as a lawyer. You can participate in debates with a ready set of skills and training that comes in very handy. In the parliament it’s invaluable. It’s helped me enormously. That’s why I did it.”
Pesutto was one of five children of Italian migrants who arrived in Australia in the early 1960s. His father working on Latrobe Valley power stations and his mother in McArthur’s shoe factory, Traralgon. It was an apolitical household but he says he “owe[s] so much to them” and his migrant heritage is “really important”.
“Our democracy – nationally and at a state level – does allow for people to achieve great success even with a migrant background, in fact sometimes because of it,” he says. “It gives you an insight into many aspects of living in Australia that others might not.”
Pesutto encourages young Australians from migrant backgrounds to “open your eyes…follow your dreams and aspirations”.
“You can participate in this democracy as much as anyone else.
“I don’t want people to think that being a first-generation child of a migrant family is any handicap. It wasn’t for me.”
This drive for success is ever present in Pesutto’s pursuit to remain Hawthorn’s local MP.
Pesutto moved to the electorate in 1989. His wife Betty has also been based here since the mid-90s. Living in Camberwell with their three daughters, they know the area well.
Since his four-year term began, Pesutto says he and his supporters have regularly been out and about in the Hawthorn electorate, the family’s stamping ground. “I’ve always been in that mindset that you have to go out and earn it every day,” he says.
“I’ve been effectively campaigning since I was elected… You can’t campaign and expect results if you leave everything to the last few weeks. A four week, five week blitz is just not going to cut it.”
The campaign strategy has included advertisements at the local cinema. Pesutto has three daughters, “two of them are teenagers and one is about to become a teenager”.
They are “coming around to politics” but Pesutto says their dad’s ads still “embarrass them” when they are at the movies with friends.
“I’ve been out in the community, train stations, street walks. I’ve visited countless community organisations and built relationships with them over time.
“We’ve telephoned lots of residents to speak to them about their key community issues.”
This feedback has informed Pesutto’s list of priorities as Victoria heads to the polls in a few weeks.
He puts a strong value on school capital funding. He says the upkeep of Hawthorn’s “beautiful, high heritage value school buildings” is urgent as is the revitalisation of “particular” open spaces: Glenferrie Oval, Fritsch Holzer Park and Auburn High School.
Planning reforms and zoning protections are also on the agenda for the Boroondara area.
However, Pesutto also places community safety as a high priority. The electorate has an “ever present challenge” with “pockets of drug use”, theft and “lower level violence”.
“It has been a concern… We are a very compassionate community, but we also believe in community safety,” he says.
Nearing the end of his first term in state parliament, Pesutto prides himself on his communication.
“I’ve always been very accessible to my constituents… my mobile number is publicly available,” he says. “You can get through to me directly.
“We’ve been very constituent-focused. You have to work to really earn that trust, it’s easily lost and it’s very hard earned.”
Pesutto likens the constituent and MP relationship to one of a “lawyer and client, doctor and patient”.
“It’s, for me, a very solemn relationship of faith and trust. I represent everybody whether they agree with me or not.”
Some of Pesutto’s “good” constituent friendships developed over the four years are with “strong Labor supporters or strong Greens supporters”. He says if he hasn’t heard from them, he tends to “miss them”.
“They’re never going to vote for me and they know I don’t expect that. That’s the way I roll.”
Although he feels he’s been successful, Pesutto says there’s room to improve.
“My first shot at re-election evokes a lot of reflections about what it means to be someone who represents a community of people, whoever, wherever you might be.
“You’re always learning in politics,” he says. “You’ve got to be open to the idea that you can do better tomorrow than you did today.
“I do concede, to be a good politician you have to be humble enough to actually accept that you can do things better.
“You might choose a strategy that didn’t work but next time you’ll perfect the system so that you can ensure that the next time a constituent comes to you, you can get a better result quicker for them.
“You’re constantly trying to correct and improve your processes.”
Pesutto says he’s open to feedback, “no matter how critical, no matter who they are obviously supporting”, but he won’t “dignify obscene” responses.
He’s hopeful his community presence has been enough to gain Hawthorn’s support for another term as he heads into the last few weeks, most likely with his wife and daughters along for the trail.
“I don’t want to make assessments of (the campaign) because that’s for other commentators to make but I hope I’ve done enough to persuade enough people that maybe it’s a good thing to keep me going as the local representative.
“You can’t take anything for granted. You really can’t in politics today.
“I can only use the platform I have to scream loudly on behalf of my constituency… and I’ll do it.”