Bid to expel Moira Deeming deepens divide in Victorian Liberal party

<span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Liberal divisions over a bid to expel Victorian MP Moira Deeming from the party room are expected to deepen, despite leader John Pesutto claiming an early victory after an attempt to delay a vote over her future failed.

Liberal MPs will decide early next week whether Deeming should be expelled from the parliamentary party, after she attended a rally headlined by British anti-transgender activist Kellie-Jay Keen where neo-Nazis were photographed performing the Nazi salute at the weekend.

Deeming has vowed to fight the expulsion and says she has done nothing wrong.

On Tuesday, Liberal MPs held a party room meeting that went for almost two hours to discuss the matter.

Liberal sources close to Pesutto said a motion was moved by Brad Battin and Richard Riordan during the meeting to delay Monday’s vote. It failed 18 votes to 11. One MP was absent from parliament and another abstained.

Pesutto said the failed motion showed the party room “understands” his grounds for seeking to expel Deeming. Others were more sceptical.

“There could be machiavellian reasons why some MPs want the vote to go ahead,” a conservative Liberal source said.

Related: Victoria to ban Nazi salute after ‘disgusting’ scenes at anti-trans protest

The source said the motion was used as an opportunity to debate the merits of Pesutto’s push to expel Deeming, with several MPs “unconvinced” that her conduct has reached “a threshold worthy of expulsion”.

“Clearly Moira has nothing to do with Nazis,” they said.

“If there was evidence she had anything to do with them, it would be an immediate hanging offence, but so far all that’s been shown is she’s had an association with someone who has [allegedly] had an association with Nazis.”

Both Battin and Riordan previously stood for the Liberal leadership after last year’s election loss, along with Ryan Smith, who told ABC Radio Melbourne he didn’t support Pesutto’s expulsion motion.

“I can’t see any evidence that she’s associated with Nazis … some of the evidence that’s been shown to me appears to have been put together to fit the accusation rather than the other way around,” he said.

“The next few days will be the opportunity for leadership to change my view on that. But … I can’t see any reason why we should be expelling someone who’s been firstly elected by the party and then subsequently elected by the people in western Melbourne.”

After leaving the meeting, Pesutto said he was confident “the party that understands why I’ve done this and that I have not taken the action lightly”.

“But I do respect the process and Ryan is entitled to a view like every member of the party,” he said.

Pesutto characterised the meeting as “robust but civil”, but did not respond to questions about MPs believing the motion had become a “proxy vote” on his leadership or whether he would step down if the motion failed.

Deeming was flanked by MPs Chris Crewther, David Hodgett, Ann-Marie Hermans, Bill Tilley and former opposition leader, Matthew Guy as she entered the party room meeting

She declined to answer questions from media.

Meanwhile, Pesutto’s letter of motion, addressed to Deeming, was publicly released on Tuesday morning, outlining the allegations she “conducted activities in a manner likely to bring discredit on the Parliament or the Parliamentary Party”.

He alleges Deeming attended the rally despite Keen being “known to be publicly associated with far right-wing extremist groups including neo-Nazi activist”.

A post-rally meeting with fellow attendees Keen, failed Liberal candidate Katherine Deves and organiser Angie Jones, was also raised by Pesutto.

The document also highlights a tweet by Jones on Saturday, which read:“Nazis and women want to get rid of paedo filth, why don’t you?”

Jones maintains the comment has been taken out of context.

Related: Victoria can deny Nazis a breeding ground with deradicalisation instead of playing whack-a-mole with bans | Simon Copland

Attached to the letter, which was co-signed by senior Liberals David Southwick, Georgie Crozier and Matthew Bach, is a 15-page dossier of “evidence” supporting the allegation.

It includes screenshots of a YouTube video of Deeming, escorting Keen to the front steps of parliament via the car park.

Also included in the dossier are interviews Keen conducted with far-right networks and a screenshot of Keen using a Barbie doll wearing a Nazi uniform as her profile picture on the social media site Spinster.

In the letter, Pesutto writes that Deeming will be “given an opportunity to explain [her] conduct” before the vote.

Keen denied having links to neo-Nazis on Tuesday.

“It’s absolutely repulsive that somebody in a position like the leader of the opposition has spewed such vile lies about somebody,” she told radio station 3AW.

Keen also said Deeming “helped organise” the event: “I couldn’t tell you the specifics but … Moira Deeming is an absolute asset to this country and to the women’s movement as a whole.”

The upper house MP has disputed this, telling Guardian Australia she was not an organiser but was “asked to help with a couple of things”.

On Tuesday, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, said the rally was a “hateful event long before” neo-Nazis performed the salute at the demonstration.