The Matt Prices of the world are delighted. There’s plenty of copy in Labor’s squeamishness over the hanging of portraits of Kim Beazley, Simon Crean and – yes, Iron Mark – among the gallery of heroes of the workers’ struggle in the party room.

This sudden delicacy is hard to explain. As Darryl Melham told the Adelaide Advertiser: “Everyone’s up there, mate. There’s one of bloody Billy Hughes up. How can you not put one up of Latham?” Yet still the comrades are quibbling. And they’re particularly squeamish about the hanging of Simon Crean – for poor old Sime seems set to get it both ways.

“Deep fractures have appeared in caucus over the challenge to Simon Crean’s preselection,” The Australian reports today. “Mr Beazley declined again yesterday to help his former leadership rival in his battle with National Union of Workers state secretary Martin Pakula for the plum Melbourne seat of Hotham, reiterating that all his MPs were vulnerable to preselection challenge.”

Preselection tussles threaten the careers of six sitting Labor members from Victoria, including three front benchers. The Landeryou and Slanderyou blogsites have more details on the in and outs of the Victorian branch than any well adjusted person wants to know.

Some more digestible thoughts from a more respectable source were offered on PM on Friday night by former Senate leader John Button. He described events as “fairly unusual”, calling Crean “peculiarly invaluable to the Labor Party in the circumstance in which they win government, if that happens,” as “the only guy with ministerial experience apart from Kim Beazley”.

And Button’s views on the wannabes?

It rather reminds me of one of those scenes in the film The Life of Brian, you know, one of the small groups or sects announces the second coming. Here we are guys, we’ve got the future. We know the answers to Labor’s current problems. But that can’t be right because they won’t be there, if they succeed in their preselections, until after the next federal election.

Now, if Labor wins the next federal election, is it in need of renewal? That is a nice question. If it doesn’t win the next federal election, then they’re there. But it’s implicit in their position that they think Labor is going to lose the next federal election, which is sort of sad.

I mean, why don’t these guys if they’re very clever stand for marginal seats against Liberals? Why are they standing against members of the Shadow Ministry?

And there’s the rub. Another wannabe, Bill Shorten, admitted as much on The National Interest on Radio National over the weekend. As the Ambit Gambit blog observed “he’s running to win Maribyrnong but lose Australia”.

Sometime Labor groupie Shaun Carney observed in Saturday’s Age:

Kim Beazley says the notion of tenure in the ALP works like this: when the party is in opposition, preselections should be a free-for-all, and when it is in office, all frontbenchers must be protected. It is a silly prescription.

According to Beazley, when Labor has the task of establishing cohesion, creating and selling policy, and proving itself fit for government, it is not just fair enough but desirable for any faction boss or union chief to go around creating merry hell by picking off anyone in the caucus, including shadow ministers.

Should there be any bastardry in any of this energy-sapping, enormously distracting carry-on – you know, because voters might think that the ALP is more interested in playing destructive games than representing them and winning an election – does the federal leader have a responsibility or an obligation to step in and sort it out? Don’t be silly. This is party democracy in action.

On the other hand, if Labor finds itself in office, any useless flog of a minister, say, the happy recipient of a cross-factional deal that’s elevated him or her to the front bench, can count on never being accountable through the preselection process…

You could go one step further. The bruvvers are squeamish because they’ve lost faith in themselves. Pakula and Shorten aren’t standing in marginal seats because they have no faith in their party. Their comrades have no faith in their party’s systems. It’s just one big factional free for all. Numbers rule. And who gives a toss about quality?

Peter Fray

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