The ALP is busy preparing itself for Government. Already the first moves are underway to re-shuffle the front bench after the election, and the factional plays are starting to get underway. This process is likely to lift the lid on some of the more intriguing deals which Kevin Rudd did to obtain the leadership 12 months ago.
One of the conditions of the deal brokered by Mark Arbib to give Rudd the support of the National Right was that Rudd would support the Right in its attempts to “rejuvenate” the front bench by installing its preferred candidates and purging the remaining Latham supporters from the front bench.
The Right was keen to execute the Lathamites straight away, but in the interests of stability Rudd convinced them to hold off until after the election. The wounds of 2003-2004 are still yet to heal amongst many on the Right, and there is strong desire a symbolic final cleansing. Firmly in their sights are Simon Crean and Joel Fitzgibbon. Twelve months ago they were also gunning for Julia Gillard, but her position is likely to be unassailable for so long as she remains deputy leader.
The anti-Crean push is, not surprisingly, being led by Stephen Conroy. Conroy is still brooding over Crean’s preselection victory in 2006, and his public gloating at Conroy’s expense afterwards. Conroy will be in a powerful position to exact delayed revenge on Crean due to the factional way that front bench seats are allocated in the ALP. Rather than the entire caucus voting to elect the 30 available positions, spots on the front bench are divided up between state factions in proportion to the numbers each state faction has in the caucus. Crean is still a member of the Victorian Right but the numbers within that faction will be well and truly against him. The pro-Conroy numbers within the faction will be significantly bolstered by the addition of Richard Marles, Bill Shorten and Mark Dreyfus, which will mean that Crean will have no chance of retaining his spot. Shorten is expected to easily win the vote to take over Crean’s seat, and if the numbers play out well, the Victorian Right may even gain an additional spot, which has been promised to Dreyfus.
A similar situation is likely to occur within the NSW Right, as faction leaders Steve Hutchins and Mark Arbib line up Fitzgibbon for execution.
Fitzgibbon has been in their sights since December 2001 when Mark Latham beat Steve Hutchins for the final spot in the NSW Right allocation of front bench spots. Fitzgibbon, of course, was always Mark Latham’s best mate. In the Latham Diaries, Fitzgibbon allegedly describes the experience of rolling Hutchins as being “better than sex”. Hutchins has a memory like an elephant and has never forgiven Fitzgibbon for this slight. The key vote within the NSW Right looks likely to be that of Hutchins’ factional ally, Health Services Union boss Craig Thomson, who is likely to win the seat of Dobell. Hutchins has gone to enormous lengths to get Thomson into parliament, paying to re-locate him from Melbourne to the Central Coast, and pouring substantial TWU money into his local campaign, all in the hope of shoring up his numbers within the NSW Right. Thomson’s extra vote will be all that Hutchins needs to tip out Fitzgibbon for the last front bench spot.
Rudd, meanwhile, has agreed to let the bloodletting play itself out and not intervene. He always viewed Crean and Fitzgibbon as expendable, and given the increased caucus strength of the NSW Right and the Victorian Right groupings after the election, Rudd is determined not to make Crean’s fatal mistake of getting the factional heavies offside.