Brian Howe says PM should keep out of Batman battle

Senator David Feeney believes he has the support of the Prime Minister for preselection in the seat of Batman. AAP/Alan Porritt

Former deputy prime minister Brian Howe, who held Batman for two decades, has strongly backed local woman Mary-Anne Thomas in the bitter preselection battle for the seat.

Howe said Labor should keep its promise to deliver women candidates in a fair share of safe seats, but it was important as well to have as candidate a credible and active local resident in an area where the Green vote was increasing.

He also said he was “very disappointed to see the Prime Minister involved” in the preselection. “It’s quite counterproductive for her to be involved. This is not about the election - this is about the future.”

Parliamentary Secretary David Feeney, a senator who was involved in the 2010 coup that installed Julia Gillard, has put up his hand for the seat, saying today on ABC Radio he believed he had the Prime Minister’s backing. He is also supported by the retiring member, former resources minister, Martin Ferguson. But there is a strong push from Labor women in cabinet in favour of Thomas.

Families Minister Jenny Macklin said at the weekend that Thomas’s experiences and qualities made her the sort of candidate who “will one day be an exceptional cabinet minister, as the current and previous members for Batman, Martin Ferguson and Brian Howe, have been”. Finance Minister Penny Wong urged local preselectors to support a woman in Batman.

Macklin said she was very concerned that if a woman was not preselected for Batman, the ALP in Victoria would have only 27% of candidates in held seats who were women, well short of the 40% required by the party’s national rule.

Howe said that regardless of what people thought about this rule, “if we make that commitment, we’ve got to live with it.” He pointed out that in the recent preselection for another safe Victorian seat, Gellibrand, former minister Nicola Roxon, who is also retiring at the election, had been replaced by a male.

He said that women were getting pushed out to marginal seats.

He did not know Thomas especially well, but his impression was that she would be quite a strong member.

Thomas is currently the executive manager of Plan International, a children’s development agency. She has a master’s degree in public policy and management, and has worked for the union movement, NAB, and the Victorian government.

“I don’t think Feeney’s got anything on her on ability grounds. It’s machine politics,” he said.

This would be an extremely difficult election and “it’s about putting people in now who would be important in the long run

"There’s also a grassroots element. The Labor Party’s got to face up to the fact we are increasingly alienated at the local level.”

Howe recalled that when he ran for preselection in a challenge to the then member for Batman Horrie Garrick, Peter Redlich, the then state president of the party, had spoken out and said the seat had to have the best candidate.

Howe was deputy prime minister from 1991 to 1995 and represented Batman from 1977 to 1996.

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