View from The Hill

The “shoppies” rotten borough in WA Labor

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, WA Labor leader Mark McGowan, Federal Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek and Federal Labor MP Alannah MacTiernan in Perth this week. Joe Bullock is conspicuously absent. AAP/Tim Clarke

Parties keep saying they want to attract better candidates and then continue to throw up some shockers. On the evidence, one such has the top spot on the ALP’s ticket for the West Australian Senate election.

Joe Bullock, long serving state secretary of the right wing “shoppies”, won in September and is certain to triumph again, all because of the power of his union and his faction.

The ALP has so little confidence in his campaigning appeal that when Bill Shorten was on the hustings in Perth this week, Bullock was kept carefully in the background.

Normally candidates are standing at the shoulder of the leader, getting in a few words on camera, but there was no sign of Bullock at either of Shorten’s two press conferences (although he, the other candidates and Shorten did do a photo shoot and interview for the West Australian).

On the ABC on Friday, the blow torch was applied to Bullock. “Where the heck have you been?” was the blunt opening question.

He explained: “Well I’ve been firstly continuing to do my day job as secretary of the shop assistants union and contributing to the campaign here and there, talking to the press yesterday and visiting with [shadow minister] Brendan O'Connor at a training centre in the southern suburbs. Doing as much as I can.”

Bullock said he had “spent a fair bit of time with Bill”, while Shorten was in Perth. Just out of the public eye, obviously.

The end of June will see the retirement as a WA senator of Mark Bishop, who also came from the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association.

It is as though the old English “rotten borough” system is flourishing. One out, one in, from this powerful union which has exercised extensive influence in Labor affairs over the years, especially on social issues, where it has very conservative views.

The debate about union power in the ALP is perennial but the reality is that there seems no foreseeable prospect of that power being reduced, despite what is now a very low level of unionisation in the workforce. The Bullock case is just a dramatic example of the fixes to install union candidates, often of mediocre quality, in federal seats.

In the WA case, such is the clout of the right faction and the “shoppies” that Bullock was able to defeat incumbent senator Louise Pratt for the first place on the ticket.

In the September election Pratt was elected on the initial count but not on the recount.

Pratt, who has been strong on gay rights issues (she has a trans gender partner) is also being kept out of the spotlight. The ALP wants to make Shorten, state opposition leader Mark McGowan, and recently elected federal MP and former state minister Alannah MacTiernan the faces of its campaign.

Bullock was also asked about the attack Pratt previously made on him over his anti gay marriage views. When her quote that “Joe Bullock is anti marriage equality and against a woman’s right to control her own reproductive health” was put to him, he said, “I imagine that in making those comments Louise was preaching to the choir”.

Whether voters will take any notice of candidate quality on April 5 remains to be seen. Perhaps not. The ALP hopes to keep their eyes on issues rather than names on the ballot paper.

Shorten brushed off the talk about his invisible man. But he can’t forever run away from the question of trade union power in the ALP and its consequences – especially as he is a child of the movement, which will make him more vulnerable to charges of condoning excessive influence.

Despite the candidate embarrassment, Labor sources believe the ALP can win two seats with a campaign that concentrates heavily on attacking the Barnett administration and urging voters to send a message to both state and federal governments. Labor says the issues of education and health and the slowing of the WA economy matter much more to voters than Tony Abbott’s promised repeal of the carbon and mining taxes (which Labor is holding up).

But the Liberals, fighting to retain the three seats they won in September, insist the carbon and mining taxes do resonate in this resource state. Shorten has squirmed a bit on the mining tax, remaining committed to opposing its repeal while promising to rework the version Labor takes to the 2016 election.

Clive Palmer will be trying to strip some of the grouchy vote from both major parties. These people are likely to make up their minds late. If PUP won a seat, it would have three senators after July 1, and an alliance with a fourth. That would give Palmer a huge footprint on the balance of power.

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