Labor’s newest faction, the pro-American Ruddites, is claiming the mantle of party reformers. But an investigation of the pre-selection in critical seats previously held by Cabinet ministers (and the prime minister) show that powerful factions remain in charge.
Trade Minister Craig Emerson (Rankin), Climate Change Minister Greg Combet (Charlton), Education Minister Peter Garrett (Kingsford Smith), former attorney-general Nicola Roxon (Gellibrand), former minister of regional development and local government Simon Crean (Lalor) and Prime Minister Julia Gillard (Hotham), are all standing down at the election on September 7.
Although the ALP organised rank-and-file ballots in all their seats, the outcomes were never in doubt: the faction bosses won.
Unwanted candidates were bundled out of the race while numbers and campaign resources were placed at the disposal of preferred factional candidates.
In all six seats, the contest created feverish coverage in the mainstream media. But in the final analysis, the factional fix was in and it stuck: the talk of rank-and-file democracy amounted to just that – talk.
The winners all shared the same political DNA: they are either staffers, union officials or from the new sleek political class dominating the ALP.
In Emerson’s south-east Queensland seat of Rankin, Treasurer Wayne Swan’s former chief of staff Jim Chalmers won in a victory favouring the dominant Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) faction. Chalmers and former Federal MP Brett Raguse each received 74 votes in the preliminary rank-and-file ballot, but in a subsequent electoral college vote Chalmers trounced his rival 36 to 14.
In the outer Newcastle seat of Charlton, former Climate, Industry and Innovation Minister Greg Combet passed the electorate to his deputy chief of staff, Pat Conroy, who won pre-selection after securing 57 primary votes out of a possible 90.
Defeated candidate Chris Osborne, a local resident and Swansea trade unionist, complained that the result was “a win for big unions and backroom deals. With the backing of Greg Combet and the metalworkers’ union, it was hard for anyone else to come through. The result is basically an extension of Combet being parachuted into the seat six years ago.”
In Garrett’s south Sydney seat of Kingsford-Smith, the machine’s candidate, Senator Matt Thistlethwaite, defeated Randwick mayor Tony Bowen by 136 votes to 105.
Thistlethwaite, a former AWU official and past general secretary of NSW Labor, wants to move from the Senate to the House of Representatives in the seat once held by Bowen’s father, the late Lionel Bowen, who was deputy prime minister from 1983 to 1990. To win the plum lower house seat he will need to defeat the Liberal Party’s high-profile candidate, Dr Michael Feneley, director of the heart, lung and cardiology programme at St Vincent’s Hospital who pushed Garrett to preferences at the 2010 election after receiving a 7 per cent swing.
In Crean’s Victorian seat of Hotham, local councillor and lawyer Geoff Lake took the honours 252 votes to 177 after gaining the support of the outgoing MP who was a former ACTU president, ex-premier Steve Bracks and the National Union of Workers.
In his first statement, Cr Lake, a former president of the Australian Local Government Association, said he supported Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s contentious refugee deal with PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.
Primary school principal Joanne Ryan was preselected to contest the Melbourne seat of Lalor; she was Ms Gillard’s choice for her old seat.
The way was cleared for Ms Ryan’s victory when several candidates, including Oz Opera general manager Sandra Willis, Health Services Union official Kimberley Kitching and junior diplomat Lisa Clutterham, withdrew their bids. Ms Willis is the daughter of Ralph Willis, a senior Cabinet minister in the Keating Government.
When Ms Roxon’s former seat of Gellibrand came under pre-selection, a bitter and ugly war erupted with an anonymous “dirt sheet” circulated to damage candidate Katie Hall, a former Roxon staffer.
The only contestant left standing on the night of the vote was Tim Watts, a Telstra corporate affairs manager and a former staffer with Senator Stephen Conroy, the communications minister in the first Rudd (2007-2010) and Gillard governments.
Ms Hall condemned the dirty tactics saying: “It’s pretty sickening stuff and it’s very unfortunate that those sorts of tactics are used. They have no place in the Labor Party.”
On the contrary, these practices still find a place in the ALP … repeatedly.
The outcome of each of the aforementioned pre-selections was predictable and the results were determined by powerbrokers whose hand was never disclosed.
Given that the victors include a strong presence of AWU and pro-AWU candidates, Bill Shorten’s position has been strengthened in the parliamentary Labor Caucus. He’s now breathing down Kevin Rudd’s neck.
It demonstrates what pre-selections are still about – collecting the numbers.