There was once a time where the words ‘Socialist Left’ and ‘Bill Shorten’ were like oil and water in ALP circles, but the extraordinary marriage of convenience thrashed out on Wednesday afternoon between the SL and the “old Right” in Kim Carr’s Lygon Street office signals just how far Shorten is prepared to go to re-establish his role as Victoria’s kingmaker.

The decision by Shorten’s Labor Unity to abandon the ‘young turks’ of the National Union of Workers and shack up with their old ideological sparring partners on the Left is designed to paper over the vicious pre-selection battles that have damaged the party and bewildered voters. But Crikey understands the pre-Christmas madness over State Secretary Stephen Newnnam’s future was the final straw for Premier John Brumby, who has given the stitch-up his seal of approval.

ALP sources have told Crikey that the “Chairman’s Lounge special” crafted by Shorten and Carr presented SL factional chiefs with an offer they couldn’t refuse — principally because it gives the Left surety in pre-selection battles that they would have otherwise struggled to secure. The Unity-SL union now means that 70% of state conference votes are effectively off the table — if the deal holds, ambitious attempts to unseat Alan Griffin in Bruce and Harry Jenkins in Scullin at the last federal poll could be a thing of the past.

Shorten is now in a position to boast to the PM that the era of bloodletting is over and that he holds the whip hand when it comes to keeping factional knifings to a manageable level, leaving Rudd to get on with his task of “managing” the GFC.

It also calls time on the unlikely alliance between the NUW and their pro-life buddies in the shop assistants union. The emergence of the turks represented a danger to the traditional Rightist forces led by Shorten and Stephen Conroy with their burning ambition said to be all-consuming. With key turk Martin Pakula safely ensconced in the Victorian Upper House (and now the Ministry) and his NUW successor Antony Thow pressing for a safe seat, the breakaway group went over the top, installing SDA organiser Marlene Kairouz in Kororoit and lining up state secretary Stephen Newnham for what sources told Crikey at the time was a pre-Christmas ‘thrill kill’.

The fate of Newnham, as hated by the Left as he is by chief turk Charlie Donnelly, is emerging as the great unknown from the SL-Unity deal. But factional chiefs have told Crikey that Newnham is “gone” and “will now resign with dignity” after the dust has settled.

At state level, ETU scion Dean Mighell has emerged a winner with the fate of the deal resting partly in his enormous hands. Conceivably, Mighell could kill the bonhomie if he decides to up-sticks and band with other left-aligned dissidents in the union movement. But sources have told Crikey that for the moment at least, Mighell will sit tight and assess the re-made political landscape from his tastefully-renovated offices in North Melbourne. The theory is that if either the NUW, SDA or Mighell arcs up, Shorten would scurry directly to Kevin Rudd and press for a national intervention that would make John Howard’s NT putsch look tame by comparison.

For the average Victorian voter, factional deals are of zero significance — Wednesday night’s détente is all about protecting the ALP brand from the public perception of impenetrable infighting as John Brumby and Kevin Rudd attempt to maintain an illusion of propriety and political control.

For the moment, Brumby is free to turn his gaze to more important matters like convincing voters of the intrinsic merits of desalination plants and public transport. But these will be far from Bill Shorten’s mind as he settles in to his revitalised role as the PM’s south-of-the-border lieutenant — now with extra factional muscle to back up his ambition to one day inherit the keys to the Lodge.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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