Results of the ALP’s election for its national presidency — the second ever held under direct election by the membership — are now all but official, and they hold a couple of interesting messages.

Senator John Faulkner was the clear leader with 41.5%, and will be president for 2007. South Australian premier Mike Rann, who came second with 27.2%, will follow him in the job in 2008. Former leader Simon Crean came third with 21.2%, but he misses out on the rotation because one of the jobs must go to a woman —  the remaining candidate, NSW state MP Linda Burney, who got only 10% but will be president in 2009.

So the first lesson is the strangeness of affirmative action: the results make it look as if the only woman in the field came a poor last and has to be helped by special privileges. The Liberals’ federal president, Chris McDiven, has already taken the opportunity to have a swipe at Labor women who she said “had got ahead by connections and embarrassing quotas.”

But since Burney was the only woman in the field, and therefore guaranteed a position, the result gives no real indication of her support. Obviously members who wanted their vote to make a difference would have looked elsewhere.

However well-intentioned, affirmative action thus has the perverse result of making women look bad by understating their performance.

Similarly, in internal ballots factions often put women lower on their tickets, so the effect of applying a quota will benefit the ticket when it’s most needed.

The second message is about the factional balance in the ALP. In the first national ballot, in 2003, not much could be concluded because one of the leading candidates — Barry Jones, who came second with 28.2% — was not from either main faction: “a centre-left independent spirit”, as the SMH called him.

This time, however, there was a clear division. Faulkner was the one candidate from the left; although he won, the other three, all from the right, had 58.5% between them.

Another way of putting it is that the left’s total vote has barely changed: in 2003 its three candidates (Carmen Lawrence, Duncan Kerr and Michael Samaris) had just over 41% between them. Jones’s votes seem to have all gone to the right. Although the left has won both national ballots, the right can still claim majority support among the rank and file.