The ALP becomes its own worst enemy in WA Senate shambles

Factional dealings saw Labor senator Louise Pratt demoted in favour of conservative union heavyweight Joe Bullock in the ALP’s WA Senate ticket. AAP/Alan Porritt

The only surprising factor in the stories regarding Joe Bullock, who held the number one position on the ALP Senate ticket at Saturday’s Western Australian Senate byelection, was that they took so long to break into wide circulation.

Bullock, who was elected to the Senate on Saturday, managed to gain pole position on the ALP ticket around a year ago, in the lead-up to the September 2013 federal election.

As part of a deal which saw left candidate Simone McGurk from Unions WA (the state version of the Australian Council of Trade Unions) gain pre-selection for the state seat of Fremantle, Bullock, from the right-wing Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), was able to leap-frog incumbent senator Louise Pratt, who is backed by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.

Pratt took the number one position in 2007, which resulted in then-senator Ruth Webber losing her seat. Her fate in the byelection is unclear as counting continues.

As a result of the deal, senator Mark Bishop, a former ally of Bullock’s and the traditional SDA candidate, did not seek pre-selection in 2013, having correctly viewed a third ALP seat as being unwinnable.

Pratt made her disappointment with the demotion known when she released the following post, which remains on Facebook:

Facebook

While the deal gained notice in February 2012 during the pre-selection process for the 2013 state election – and again in April 2013 when the WA candidates for the federal Senate were finalised – it remained a relatively low-key story. And it would have remained so, if not for the need to hold a new Senate election in Western Australia.

As the weekend’s results show, as long as the ALP allows union heavyweights to dominate the pre-selection process and nominate candidates at odds with the views of the general membership – and in this case, all left-leaning progressives in the electorate – they will continue to alienate voters.

Senators on the hustings

Senate positions are often provided to heavyweights in both major parties. They are able to focus on internal party politics and policy rather than the constituency work required by members of the House of Representatives.

Ordinarily, Senate candidates don’t attract much attention in election campaigns, unless they hold a ministry or shadow ministry position. But ALP apparatchiks must have had their hearts in their mouths ever since the possibility of a re-election for six Western Australian Senate position was raised. They knew what an electoral liability Bullock could be.

Pratt, however, has a relatively high profile in many segments of the Western Australian electorate as a result of her time in state parliament. She has a strong personal following due to her support for same-sex marriage and her calls for action on climate change.

While Pratt, who holds her own when dealing with media, was seen out and about on the hustings, The West Australian newspaper had to lure out Bullock, who managed to keep a very low profile during the first weeks of the campaign.

However, the focus shifted to Bullock in the last two weeks of the campaign as details of his conviction for unlawful assault in 1996 were revealed. This was followed by the release of a recording of a Q&A session after a speech to the Dawson Society, a Christian group, in November last year.

The recording highlighted Bullock’s socially conservative views, his general disdain for progressives within the ALP and his sympathies with his old university friend Tony Abbott, whom he claimed had the potential to be a “very good prime minister”.

Bullock was also forced to front the media to apologise for comments he made about Pratt’s sexuality (she is openly gay) with Pratt by his side.

Bullock’s views no surprise to the ALP

Going into this election, the ALP was unable to offer the electorate anything by way of new policies or funding as the results of the Senate re-election would not lead to their winning government or even gaining the balance of power in the Senate. As a result, the ALP encouraged voters to consider the election as a referendum on the Abbott government.

The ALP can’t be held be responsible for flight MH370 dominating the news, the Greens using Scott Ludlam’s viral speech in the Senate as a springboard for a strong campaign, or Clive Palmer’s spending spree. But they have no-one to blame but themselves for the Bullock debacle.

On Saturday, the lack of trust with which Bullock is viewed internally was on display. Suggestions that he couldn’t be relied upon not to jump ship once in the Senate and could turn independent at some point during his six year term were raised.

The counting so far shows the ALP’s primary vote has dipped by 4.8% from its September 2013 result to 21.8%. Pratt did manage to put a bit of pressure back on Bullock when he was forced to wait while she voted below the line, preferencing herself first.

If Pratt does manage to get over the line, it will likely be as a result of her own personal following among ALP voters who voted below the line and the preferences of a number of left-leaning minor parties, who positioned her well above the other ALP and Liberal candidates.

Bill Shorten should use the ALP’s poor results in Western Australia as a starting point for serious reform within the party. AAP/Tim Clarke

Reform or wither

Union power over pre-selection can be limited. John Smith was able to instigate reform in the British Labour Party, introducing the One Member One Vote method to determine pre-selection in 1993, thereby reducing the power of the unions.

The ALP threw away the opportunity for reform when they failed to implement in full the 2010 Bracks-Faulkner-Carr Review recommendation of a tiered system of party primaries for the selection of candidates, which would have limited the influence of unions.

Paul Howes, the high-profile former boss of the Australian Workers’ Union, gifted the ALP an opportunity with his recent comments that the relationship between the ALP and unions should be severed as it was damaging both parties.

Former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke lent strength to the idea that the relationship needs to be reviewed on the weekend, as did former Labor senator Chris Evans, who admitted the Bullock scandal had harmed the Labor vote.

With the federal government releasing the terms of reference for the Royal Commission into Union Governance and Corruption, things are only going to get worse for Labor.

Bill Shorten should use the ALP’s poor results in Western Australia as a starting point for serious reform within the party. It is expected that he will announce that the rule that all members of the ALP must be also be members of a union will be scrapped.

Until the ALP embrace reform, it’s difficult to see how they’ll break this pattern of self-harm.