The Liberals have pathetically decided not to run in the Cunningham by-election but the Labor Party could still be in deep trouble as Gordon Gong reports.

On the 14th of September, the Wollongong voters turned out to pick a replacement for the resigned George Harrison, former Labor party Lord Mayor, and now disgraced bankrupt. The Labor party chose Bob Proudfoot to lead the ALP charge, up against an assortment of opponents, led by Independent Lord Mayor, Alex Darling.

Whilst Labor was talking up its chances, it obviously forgot to tell the voters, as Proudfoot got smashed by Darling, who eventually won by nearly 14 percent. The big surprise in the vote was the 15 percent primary vote pulled by Greens candidate Michael Organ (Darling got 38 percent of the primary vote).

In fact, in the northern suburbs of Wollongong, where the Greens message resonated with residents sick of overdevelopment in the area, the Greens polled over 25 percent of the vote, and actually won some polling booths outright.

Now whilst this is interesting, these machinations are only relevant until September next year, when the Illawarra residents get to hop out of bed on a Saturday and cast votes for the entire council again.

At this stage, it seems that the community’s support for the left-leaning Active Community Team has evaporated, to be replaced by a surging Greens party. This wasn’t helped by the ACT leader Dave Martin, not even bothering to return from an overseas trip for the election, leaving the running to his second-in-command, Trevor Mott, who could only managed 7 percent or so of the vote.

Responding to the news of the Labor Party defeat, Opposition Leader Simon Crean said: “I’ve seen the results, they are disappointing for Labor, they relate to local issues down there, but I think that there is a clear message and that is any political party that takes a constituency for granted will be punished. The issues in Cunningham will be different.” Er, really, Simon? He is of course referring to the Cunningham by-election, to be held on October 19. Presumably Simon is thinking of a different ALP, cause it seems that the one operating in the Illawarra has certainly taken the constituency for granted for years!

After the resignation of the “burnt out” Stephen Martin, Labor was quick off the blocks to nominate a candidate, Sharon Bird. Bird must have been a godsend for the NSW Labor Party, as a female, ensuring that she was foisted onto the electorate without having to resort to those nasty rank-and-file vote things.

The State Executive used their N40 veto power, along with the recent weighting for female candidates, to ensure that there was no nasty internal bickering over the preselection. Despite the appearances, though, Bird is as much a Labor party factional battler as any going around. This is apparently her fourth attempt at preselection, her most recent and memorable being her battle with the Labor Party hierarchy over the installation of Jennie George in the federal seat of Throsby late last year. Bird switched from the Labor left faction over to the right last year, which seemed to be a poor tactical move after the left foisted George on Throsby, but looks to have borne fruit as she gets the nod to run for Cunningham to replace the Right’s Stephen Martin.

Nominations for Cunningham closed on Thursday. With such huge issues as border protection and a possible war with Iraq looming, you would think that the Liberal Party would attempt to put up a half-decent candidate to gauge the reaction of the people, even in a safe Labor seat. So who have they put up? That’s right, no-one.

Showing complete contempt for the Illawarra, the NSW Liberal Party decided that their money would be better spent on the state election to be held in March. Thanks, John!

However, the tricky Liberals weren’t quite leaving Cunningham alone. Reports emerged that Regional Services, Territories and Local Government minister, Wilson Tuckey, had approached the newly elected Lord Mayor, conservative Independent Alex Darling to consider running as a “Liberal-leaning” independent. Great another Lord Mayoral election! Darling, though, knocked Wilson back, as did local solicitor Mark McDonald, the victor in a bizarre promotion run by the Illawarra Mercury in which readers were invited to vote for a “people’s candidate” from a number of local identities. Apparently the Liberals proposed to a number of people that they would “support” their candidacy, but not financially. As the people approached seem to have asked, what support could they provide other than financial?

So, without a Liberal candidate, Simon Crean would be licking his chops at the prospect of a walkover by-election, right? Well, not exactly. When nominations closed, thirteen people had been put up, spanning the political spectrum. At the top of the ballot is Fred Nile Group member Owen Nannelli. Mr Nannelli hasn’t visited Wollongong since November last year, so let’s hope the voters reward his commitment accordingly. The usual suspects, such as One Nation (Geoffrey Crocker) the Citizens Electoral Council (Hal Johnson) and Australian Against Further Immigration (David Hughes) round out the loopy right-wing side, with Socialist Alliance’s Christopher Williams and Democrat Linda Chapman (a student of eco-theology, apparently; anyone know what that is?) taking up positions opposite.

A bevy of independents join them, including James Keene, yet another disenfranchised ALP member, who quit the party over its lack of rank-and-file preselection ballots. Presumably he won’t be preferencing Sharon Bird. Megan Sampson, another independent, is a former Democrat. In fact, Megan (Meg?) almost managed to snare Cunningham in the 1990 election, scoring nearly 48 percent of the vote.

On Wednesday, another serious contender stepped onto the ring. Surrounded by the local reps from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Public Service Union, the National Tertiary Education Union and the Fire Brigade Employee’s Union, South Coast Labor Council president Peter Wilson announced he would be standing against the party supposed to be representing the unions. Although SCLC secretary Arthur Rorris tried to claim that Wilson was not being “endorsed” by the SLSC, it’s hard to see it any other way, especially as it was announced that the unions would be helping Wilson’s campaign. Wilson is definitely from the left side of the unions, a former member of the Communist Party and fond of calling people “comrades”. However, it’s not going to look good for the Labor Party when one of their main competitors is a strong union man.

The other great hope against the ALP seems to be the Greens. Michael Organ, who scored fifteen percent of the Lord Mayoral vote three weeks ago, is running in Cunningham, and is confident. In their press release, the Greens quote the usual “unnamed Labor Party insider” admitting that Organ will beat Bird, based on the ALP post-mortem of the Lord Mayoral race.

All the signs for the Greens are good, though, with strong support, a huge amount of voter apathy for the Labor Party and a large number of candidates to swap preferences with. Organ’s campaign was launched by Bob Brown, and the main issue they’re running with is the war on Iraq, something that Sharon Bird seems to be keeping very quiet on. In fact, Bird seems to be concentrating on the fact that Wollongong people don’t get local phone calls to Sydney.

To further complicate things for Labor, it seems that all of the other candidates are racing to see who can preference against the ALP the quickest. With the two main contenders, Michael Organ and Peter Wilson, already agreeing on a preference swap, things must be getting pretty shaky in the Labor campaign office.

In fact, Gordon Gong can attest to just how nervous the ALP is. Just last week, he received a call from a market research agency, and was inundated with questions about politics and local issues. Things can’t be looking good for the ALP if the polling agency is any guide; a question about what Gordon thought the major issues affecting Cunningham were resulted in the interviewer’s computer having a meltdown, with the interviewer forced to fetch his manager. Not only that, it seems the ALP has decided that poll-driven politics is the way ahead, so much so that the market researchers were asked to put campaign slogans to Gordon, and allow him to choose the best one!

On top of all this, outgoing NSW State member for Heathcote, Ian McManus, and Wollongong State member Colin Markham have both come out in the past few weeks with huge criticisms of the NSW Labor Party machine, and the Right faction members who are ignoring the will of local ALP members. They have both said that the Labor member for Keira (in Wollongong’s northern suburbs) David Campbell, is on very shaky ground. This should certainly make things interesting for Bob Carr’s government come the state election in March.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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