View from The Hill

Factional chiefs triumph – again

Stephen Conroy is a key ALP factional player in Victoria. AAP/ Tracey Nearmy

Members of the ALP national executive will vote tomorrow to preselect candidates for Victorian legislative council electorates. Executive members from as far away as Western Australia and Queensland will be making judgements about the people who will seek the support of Victorian voters.

It’s another triumph for Labor’s faceless men - another indication that, for all the talk of making the party more democratic, you can’t keep the factional chiefs down.

The cost of this exercise in factional muscle is anger and disillusionment among those grass roots members who thought the move to give the rank and file a say in electing the national leader might be the start of a new way of doing things. Silly them.

The latest episode in power broking played out after Victorian opposition leader Daniel Andrews told the state branch he wanted preselections done by year’s end.

The administrative committee said it could conduct plebiscites for lower house seats but it was all too hard to meet the timetable for upper house ones.

It referred the matter to the party’s national executive (the state committee doesn’t have the power to do these preselections itself).

In a phone hook up on Thursday the national executive decided to conduct the ballot. It was a stitch up between right and left. Victorian left winger Kim Carr moved the motion; South Australian right factional heavy Don Farrell seconded it.

Left wingers Mark Butler and Tim Ayres spoke against. Compromise was proposed. To no avail.

Victorian sources who support the decision say the move had overwhelming support from the state party and nothing should distract from fighting an election Labor could win. They point to the difficulties of having a postal vote for the multi-member electorates.

The excuse of inadequate time is just that - an excuse. Anyway, it would hardly have mattered if the upper house preselections had run into early next year. The Victorian election is late 2014, unless something untoward happens – if it did, the national executive could always have intervened then.

The fact is that the Victorian factional bosses, who include Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate, Stephen Conroy, wanted to manage the result. A plebiscite could have seen some stoushes (aka serious contests). A national executive ballot helps manage divisions on the right.

Federal opposition leader Bill Shorten, who committed himself during the leadership ballot to extending party democracy, did not take part in Thursday’s hook up.

The Border Mail reported yesterday that several candidates in the north east region feared being “rolled” by people from Melbourne. The report said Labor members had threatened to boycott helping run the election effort.

Race Mathews, patron of Local Labor which has been fighting to advance the cause of party reform, has described the national executive decision as an “insult to the intelligence of rank and file party members.”

“Secrecy and deals reached behind closed doors have become the ruin of our party, and a recipe for the sort of outrages and ill-repute which have so disastrously overtaken it in New South Wales,” Mathews said.

He said the justification offered for the referral of the upper house pre-selections to the national executive - that acceptance of the referral was an “administrative necessity” – was “a lie”.

“If the party’s new generation of ‘faceless men’ (and some women) had ever seriously contemplated allowing the local plebiscites to go ahead, contingency plans for enabling it to happen would have been put in place.

"The original timeline for the pre-selections was established by the administrative committee itself, with preliminary indications that there would be a members’ ballot. And it failed to meet its own deadlines.

"The fix was sitting on their hands to the point where it could be claimed there was insufficient time left to start from scratch for voting before Christmas, or room in the state election cycle for it to be postponed until early next year.”

Mathews said that “those responsible for this debacle must be shown that they may run but they can’t hide. Candidates for election as state conference delegates at the forthcoming federal electorate assembly elections should be required to disclose publicly their factional affiliations and endorsement or condemnation of the referral decision.”

He said explicit undertakings should be sought that these people would support the various recommendations for party reform that have been made by reviews.

It would seem optimistic, however, to think that undertakings would mean much. It is all a matter of the numbers, based on mutual benefit alliances between the factional chiefs.

Listen to Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.