This has been another priceless week for ALP factional hacks as their internal world of dungeons and dragons continues to receive unprecedented media oxygen. Journalists have been quick to trot out the usual tropes about bloodbaths and knifings. But if last night’s conclusive 300-strong meeting at the headquarters of the Australian Workers Union attended by Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy is any indication, expect the latest claims and counter-claims over the so-called ‘stability pact’ to swiftly subside.

Last week’s unprecedented left-right deal, negotiated by unlikely allies Bill Shorten and Kim Carr, with strong support from Julia Gillard and John Brumby, was a win for the Socialist Left of the party. It gives it control of pre-selections above and beyond their voting influence and has been greeted with predictable dismay by sections of the right frozen out. But for Shorten and Conroy, the decision to take a sideways step and embrace the Left gives them pre-selection stability for the medium term — not just for 2010 but more crucially for 2013 and 2014.

The deal is essentially about control of the Right and has added importance as retirements loom at federal level. Contrary to some more reckless fourth estate assertions, Crikey understands the agreement will stick — factional chiefs on both sides are confident any flare-up would be dealt with savagely by Shorten, with a Prime Ministerial intervention possible if rebel forces continue to agitate. A good outcome you might think, as the incomprehensible world of internecine ALP horse trading finally ends and our elected representatives get on with the task of actual policy development

One well-placed negotiator told Crikey that it is was unfortunate that some players didn’t appear to want peace, but with 70% of the party lining up behind Conroy and Carr, it seems they will have to accept the new arrangement, and fast.

Let’s be clear what this means for the dissidents — a group of ambitious careerists associated with the National Union of Workers and to a lesser extent the shop assistants union have been excluded from a say in future pre-selections until at least 2014. The so-called Networkers cut their teeth on the windswept grounds of Melbourne’s Monash University in the early 1990s and then set about cutting a swathe through party ranks. For a time their number included Shorten (before his defection to Melbourne Uni), and its key players remain NUW officials Martin Pakula, Antony Thow and godfather Charlie Donnelly, whose professional approach to running their union belies a burning ambition to acquire safe seats in the Victorian Parliament. Water Minister Tim Holding is also on the outer, but his desire to one day be Premier is likely to be dashed not by factional failings, but by his prickly public perception.

On the other side of the dissident divide, a meeting this morning of militant unionists was continuing just before deadline, but Crikey understands that group is itself internally divided with a wide variety of views on the table. The session is likely to assess the remade landscape, rather than provide a launching pad for an aggressive assault on the deal’s central tenants.

Perhaps the more interesting question to emerge from the détente is what shape the ALP might take in a new era of factional peace. On the one hand it could trigger a lurch towards a kind of dreary managerialism that has permeated Canberra in Kevin Rudd’s first year in office. But this would effectively sever the party from its dwindling membership for good — the factional system is now an empty shell and its permanent ossification would provide a blank slate for Rudd to press ahead with his outmoded Third Way vision.

Or, alternatively, peace could provoke an unlikely grass roots revival with pressure mounting for a system of rank and file primaries, once proposed by Shorten. An ‘open source’ ALP is an enticing vision but neither factional peace nor open warfare is an ideal environment for such a scenario to flourish. Crikey punters wanting to get a sense of just how difficult need only consult this People and Place article from 2000.

Of course, the possibilities for internal renewal ignores the central problem — a lack of activists not just at the heart of the ALP but also every other political party in the country, save for some enthusiastic elements of the Greens. Rather than acting as vehicles for ideology, modern factions exist simply to fill a political vacuum. Even when overlords agree to disagree, as in the current climate, a lack of wherewithal will likely exhaust any reform efforts before they’ve even begun.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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