The big news in Victoria
this morning is that premier Steve Bracks has finally put his authority
on the line to try to stop the festering row over ALP preselections for
this year’s state election.

The big bone of contention is the upper house. In 2002 the ALP won 17
of the 22 Legislative Council provinces, which, if it held its vote
this year, would give it 34 of the 44 seats. But instead the Council is
being reformed, with the introduction of proportional representation
and a reduction in size from 44 to 40 members. So Labor’s 24 sitting
MPs, six of them ministers, plus sundry other hopefuls are fighting for
16 reasonably safe seats and a maximum of about 21 winnable ones. (See
Antony Green’s analysis of the reforms here).

Bracks has repeatedly called for all ministers to be guaranteed their
seats, and the party’s factions have been trying to reach a deal that
would achieve this. The dominant right faction (with which Bracks is
aligned) developed a plan for the preselections to all be done
centrally, without rank-and-file participation, but this failed to win
support at a state conference in December. Since then, the right has
been aiming at federal intervention to sort out the mess.

Now Bracks has given the factions an ultimatum: agree to his blueprint
by today, or he will support federal intervention. In addition to
protecting his ministers, Bracks wants seats found for his chief of
staff, Tim Pallas, and for Labor reform guru and internet millionaire
Evan Thornley. The right has agreed to go along, but the left, not
surprisingly, is crying foul.

Bracks’s blueprint would certainly shore up the right’s position, so, as Paul Austin
puts it, he “should not feign surprise at the Left’s fury.” But
probably more important for him is the need to put talented people in
parliament rather than factional time-servers and branch-stackers. As
in other states, the upper house has traditionally been seen as a sort
of factional retirement home, and a government seeking a third term
could do with an injection of talent.

The bunfight has federal implications as well. Michael Bachelard in The Australian
points out that it “could influence preselections in the hotly
contested federal seats of Calwell and Scullin, as the factions may no
longer be able to keep promises to reward loyal branch-stackers with
state seats.” The right had wanted to do federal preselections at the
same time as the state ones, even though the federal election is almost
two years off. But whenever they happen, it’s going to be ugly.

Peter Fray

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