Last Monday, John Pesutto, the leader of the Liberal Party in Victoria, was interviewed by ABC 7.30 presenter Sarah Ferguson for some eight minutes. It’s a rare occasion when a new state opposition leader gets such exposure on an influential national program.

And it was a discussion of the friendly genre. Early on, Ferguson called him “John” – and he reciprocated with “Sarah”. The problem was that Pesutto had come on to fang a Liberal Party member and not to praise one. Moreover, he did not offer a word of criticism with respect to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews or any member of Victoria’s Labor government.

Instead, Pesutto used the occasion to continue his campaign against one of his own backbenchers, Moira Deeming, who, for the most part, he referred to with some condescension as “Moira”.

It is well known that Deeming spoke at the Let Women Speak rally outside Parliament House in Melbourne on Saturday, March 18. She acknowledged, not long after the event, that “with the benefit of hindsight of what has occurred … my participation may have been an error of judgment that resulted in unneeded scrutiny”.

The event was organised by Australian Angie Jones, whom Deeming has described as a “left-wing, pro-gay rights, radical feminist Jewish woman”. The principal speaker was British operative Kellie-Jay Keen. Keen’s later appearances at public meetings in Canberra and Hobart were disrupted by radical trans and left-wing activists. No Nazis were present on either occasion. Later she was assaulted and effectively driven out of New Zealand.

Keen proclaims the right for women who were born women to be able to have women-only spaces in sporting teams, public toilets and the like. This she is perfectly entitled to do in accordance with the law.

The problem is that Keen is somewhat of a ranter intent on stirring up audiences. This is precisely what her opponents want, because it gives them the opportunity to state their own case in the presence of the media reporting news that looks lively on evening television news bulletins.

However, it is important to add that even a calm and considered advocate of women’s rights, such as British writer JK Rowling, would almost certainly have experienced a similar attempt by protesters to silence her if she spoke at a public event in Australia or New Zealand

The Melbourne protest was further disrupted when around a score of men dressed in black, many with black masks, who claimed to be Nazis, gatecrashed the meeting and proceeded to give Hitler-style salutes. Victoria Police made no attempt to prevent the self-proclaimed and anonymous neo-Nazis from acting as they did.

I believe I invented the term “Lunar Right” over two decades ago to refer to the relatively small number of members of the extreme right-wing groups in Australia. For around 50 years, there has been a minute number of Australian males who identify as Nazis – they are far more extreme than the conspiratorial types I had in mind when referring to the Lunar Right. Their activities are monitored by intelligence agencies and police forces.

The Labor Party has a number of strong and politically skilled leaders throughout Australia. It came as no surprise, then, that Andrews latched on to the gatecrashing Nazis at the Let Women Speak protest to condemn the movement in general and the Liberal Party in particular – on account of Deeming’s participation.

There is no evidence Deeming (who has said that as a child she spent time being brought up by a Jewish uncle) or Jones are in any sense pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic. Keen has denied any links to the Nazi or extreme-right groups and the case against her in this instance turns on guilt by very distant association due to media interviews. If Keen had known Nazi links it is unlikely she would readily have received a visa to tour Australia or New Zealand.

On March 19, the Melbourne media reported that Pesutto would move to have Deeming expelled from the Liberal Party parliamentary room. He has no authority to expel her from the party itself. The following day, in correspondence long on legalese but short on evidence, he gave Deeming notice he would move for her expulsion at a party meeting on March 27.

Appearing on the ABC Insiders program on March 26, ABC journalist Dan Bourchier described holding a Let Women Speak protest as “really dehumanising”. He added: “This is where we’ve got to and I think the arrival, or inclusion, of people that are pro-Nazi … is disgusting … it’s really quite heartbreaking.” Presenter David Speers responded: “Absolutely yeah.” No mention was made of the fact that a bunch of male neo-Nazi thugs had gatecrashed a protest for women’s rights. No female view was heard on the matter.

As it turned out, Pesutto did not have the numbers after Deeming delivered a powerful speech to parliamentary colleagues – in which she referred, among other matters, to the fact that she and her family had been threatened and bullied following the claims that she was a Nazi sympathiser. The text of her speech can be found on the Sky News website. In the event, Deeming was suspended from the Liberal partyroom for nine months.

However, Pesutto did not let up. After having failed to get the necessary support from his parliamentary colleagues, he continued his criticism of Deeming on 7.30 and elsewhere. The Liberal leader declared he wanted his party to “accept that diversity is something to be embraced and celebrated”.

Quite so. But Pesutto made no mention of the Liberal Party’s fine candidate in Saturday’s federal Aston by-election in outer suburban Melbourne; namely, Roshena Campbell – a talented barrister of Indian background who, if successful, is certainly cabinet material in a future Coalition government. However, it is unlikely the Liberals will return to office in Canberra or Melbourne any time soon if the likes of Pesutto use valuable media opportunities to criticise fellow Liberals.