Crikey doesn’t know who “Delia Delegate” is in real life but she’s the closest thing we’ve got to a Labor equivalent of Hillary Bray and hope she continues to send amazing insider material like this though to us.

On the surface the issue was about whether the state branches of unions or their federal superiors had the ultimate say about appointing delegates. Michelle O’Neill, the Textiles, Clothing and Footwear Secretary argued the case passionately as didn’t want the federal office of her union taking her power away. As the presides over a union in hopeless decline, who can blame her for that?

Then Ian Jones of the Vehicle Builders division of the Manufacturing Workers Union ranted and raved about workers’ rights and how the decision by the Metal Trades division not to send any delegates was wrong and that the Federal Court’s decision that the national office of AMWU was binding on the ALP.

Then a cavalcade of rabble rousers argued the case for why the Victorian ALP had to comply with “the rule of law.” It was an amusing argument from people who often boast about organising illegal strikes, who beat each other up in and out of the Comrade’s Bar, the Lincoln, the bar at Trades Hall, the car-park at Trades Hall and anywhere else where there are brothers from militant world of militant unionism.

Greg Sword put the case best. He argued very persuasively that the Victorian branch of the Party had no right and no role looking into the process by which union delegates are appointed to the Conference. He said it would make us a laughing stock and reminded delegates to remember when the state was referred to as the Albania of the south. Greg is in the Right of the Party, as convenor of the Labor Unity group and many Labor Unity delegates were inclined to go along with their leader. Especially in circumstances in which there was argument in which his pulse rate had exceeded its normal Bjorn Borg levels.

That was on the surface. That’s what readers of the Sunday Age heard about. What was the debate really about?

It was about a conflict in the Right wing Labor Unity group that threatens to cause a major split.

Greg Sword is the National Secretary of the National Union of Workers. He is the elder statesman of the Victorian right. He has been a person of great influence within the Party for decades now.

He is profoundly unhappy about the emergence of younger turks, like ALP State David Feeney and the best man at his recent wedding AWU National Secretary Bill Shorten who while also in the Right have built their own power bases completely independently of Sword and the National Union of Workers.

This grates on Sword and the NUW who remember the fact that they founded the faction years ago. They remember days when they were practically the last union left standing in the Labor Unity group in the early 1990’s after the Socialist Left had seized control of the Clerks’ Union, the AWU and the Transport Workers Union.

Overlayed on that is a group called Network. It was a Young Labor group formed by Shorten in the 1980’s. It’s a long and bizarre story but essentially Shorten and Feeney were in intense and bitter competition within Young Labor. Feeney says Shorten was his “nemesis” in those days. Shorten had built a large group of Young Labor people, primarily from Monash University, Feeney built a smaller group, primarily from Melbourne University.

Due to a series of personality conflicts most of which caused by Bill’s outsized ego within Shorten’s own group, he left them and formed an unlikely coalition with David Feeney.

The remaining Young Labor Network people, formerly Bill’s best mates like NUW Victorian Assistant Secretary Martin Pakula, TWU’s Steve Moore, NUW’s Antony Thow, bumbling lawyer Charles Power and the younger ones like ambitious and capable State MP Tim Holding were all shocked that Bill could enter into a Devil’s Pact of this type.

In the way that the best of friends can become the best of enemies, this group renamed briefly as Agenda continued. Many of the Agenda group and the remaining Network group have coalesced around Greg Sword and the National Union of Workers bloc within the Right.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The simmering tension is all about personalities. And it’s been played out in several battles.

Last year, Greg Sword and Martin Pakula had arranged funding for an all-out attack on Bill Shorten’s powerbase at the AWU. Bill’s enemies within the AWU were meant to deliver candidates to run against him in the Victorian branch but they got cold feet. The NUW denied any association with interfering in the internal affairs of another union.

This year, there is a ballot coming up for the National Union of Workers. Ray Gorman and a number of disgruntled people from the Victorian branch are planning on running against Greg Sword’s ticket. Whether these old guys can form a Dad’s Army ticket or not is the big question. The notoriously ethically challenged NSW branch of the NUW (the late NUW NSW State Secretary Frank Belan once got busted for putting brothel services on his union American Express card) run by Derek Belan is funding the effort although it is clear the AWU Secretary Bill Shorten is providing support of some kind too.

And there’s the Health Services Union where there is an ongoing power struggle between its Secretary Greg Sword ally Maria Zarko and the majority of the Branch Committee which is controlled by Jeff Jackson and Kathy Jackson. It is the closest thing to a direct conflict within the Right that we’ve had for a long time.

In almost every preselection and other contest from the seat of Isaacs to Melbourne Ports to Holt to various state preselections, the bitter conflict plays itself out. Sword and the NUW have been on the losing end of most of these conflicts and it remains to be seen whether they can continue to tolerate a situation where a majority of the Labor Unity group divides up the spoils while they get continually frozen out.

The next battle will probably involve the position of State Secretary of the Party. Greg Sword has evidence that suggests David Feeney has been directly involved in interfering in the Health Services Union, which is not really allowed in the job he has currently.

If the evidence checks out and if there is no resolution to the challenge to Victorian branch of the NUW, it is highly likely that Greg Sword in combination with the Left will vote out David Feeney and install the Left’s Daniel Andrews as Secretary. From Sword’s perspective while he isn’t enamoured of Daniel Andrews he at least will have a State Secretary he can deal with who isn’t undermining his power base.

And of course last weekend’s issue was about whether Bill Shorten would be President of the Victorian branch of the Party. It was the unspoken but crucial issue of the Metal Workers’ debate. The effect of the Metal Workers’ delegates being allowed to vote would have meant that Greg Sword’s group would have had the “balance of power” on the question of whether Shorten was to get the top but largely ceremonial job.

Sword’s supporters would say that any pretense of power-sharing has gone out the window in a Party with Feeney as Secretary and Shorten as President. Shorten’s opponents would say that he does not have the peace-making skills required of someone leading the faction and the Party. He is a head-kicker, they say.

The NUW had sent its delegates and the Network delegates in to get their ballot papers but rather than put them into the ballot box they were holding onto them to see how these issues could be resolved. Feeney/Shorten would be forced to the negotiating table or they would face the consequences.

These are interesting days in the Victorian Right.

The other fascinating struggle occurred between Senator Steve Conroy and the State Government. Steve had drafted a series of highly provocative motions about the State Government and its policies. The Right’s person on the Agenda Committee of the Conference David White the former Minister and lobbyist copped a huge serve from Conroy in the Labor Unity caucus meeting where Conroy accused him of refusing to let his motions on the Agenda of the Conference for personal financial reasons as Conroy’s motion on stopping public-private partnerships had financial implications from David’s clients at Hawker Brittan.

Given how close White and Conroy have been in the past for a while White worked on Conroy’s staff doing hatchet-job research into Ron Walker, John Elliott, Peter Scanlan and Lloyd Williams it was an extraordinary attack.

Ministers Brumby, Madden, el Supremo Bracks and others were spitting chips that a leading light of the “moderate” wing of the Party would engage in such a display in a pre-election State Conference.

Conroy is upset about the direction of the State Government. He wants danger man Theo Theophanous in the State Cabinet. He wants the Government to be more aggressive in supporting its friends and culling its enemies from Government boards and the public service. He finds the average Ministerial staffer to be arrogant and incompetent. He says the average State Minister wouldn’t qualify to get a job in his electoral office.

And within the Left of the Party, the conflict over the Metal Trades was all about precedent setting. The implications for most state secretaries of letting their federal superiors choose their delegations were frightening. Some have rules that make this impossible but most don’t. So the tension between those who were desperate for the Left not to slip further behind Labor Unity which would have been the consequence of not letting them in and those who were concerned about their own members’ right to have people chosen indirectly by them was palpable. Peter Holding – world Kick Boxing champion and sometime barrister – was strutting his stuff in and out of the Left caucus offering an opinion on everything but a solution for nothing. His presence causes much disturbance in the Force.

Reports that Dean Mighell is actively supporting what most thought was a Right wing push against Brian Daley from the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union also didn’t help the joie de vivre feeling in the SL meeting room. Accusing glares were being sent in the direction of ETU delegates, most of whom hadn’t heard a thing.

The Left’s candidate for President Jim Claven was heard complaining bitterly that people like Daley, O’Neill and others had brutally shafted him. His only chance of being President was the Metal Workers being allowed to vote. Claven is the failed candidate for Syndal in the 1988 election when Labor was still riding high. He wrote an uninspiring book on English politics which was an apologia for the right of the Labour Party in England causing many comrades in the Left to question Claven’s ideological purity. Even more disturbing for the Left are his ties with the NSW Right Postal Workers. By the end of the weekend, Kim Carr and others were wondering whether they should support Claven at all. His suggestions that his rival Bill Shorten was cosy with the corporate sector made several wags throw comments around about the tame-cat role his union plays with Australia Post and Telstra as they downsize with no resistance from the likes of Jim Claven. The appellation “softcock” arose in the mind of several comrades.

The courts will now resolve whether the Metals delegates can vote. As a consequence of this and several other administrative bungles by the Labor Unity aligned Tony Lang ALP Returning Officer, there is to be a postal ballot of all elected positions. This will create more time and most probably more tension in the Victorian branch, as the ballot will occur at the same time as Sword is just beginning to defend the principle of power-sharing within the Victorian Right.

The bigger principle of whether every major or minor controversy within the Party should be resolved by unelected, often very conservative judges is a hard one to resolve. There is no question that because the Parties are in receipt of millions of taxpayer dollars Courts have decided that it is in the public interest for Courts to enforce Party rules when the Party won’t. This happened in South Australia, as the Conference’s resident legal savant Diane Anderson kept reminding the Conference. Diane is a barrister. Diane is the least popular Delegate, loathed almost equally by all factions. It is people like Diane, wealthy legal practitioners who stand to benefit from all of this. Maybe there’s no alternative but it’s surely enough to have the founders of the Party spinning around in their graves faster than Diane Anderson talks.

Regards, Delia Delegate

Peter Fray

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