When the Administrative Committee of the Victorian ALP met last Friday to effectively end the 27-year career of feared numbers man George Seitz, as foreshadowed by Crikey three weeks ago, John Brumby would have been hoping the Brimbank scandal would magically disappear with him.
By “dealing” with Brimbank and transferring pre-selection power and influence to the ALP’s National Executive, the Premier is finally acting to plug the stench that has been emanating from Seitz’s sphere ever since his barnstorming run into State Parliament in 1982.
“I won’t resile from taking whatever action is necessary to clean up the party”, Brumby says.
But in faction-ridden Victoria, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Both Seitz’ sidelining and the key recommendation of the Ombudsman’s report — a ban on councillors working concurrently for MPs — will founder in the face of the numbers men who continue to control parliamentary largesse south of the border.
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Take the councillor ban. Last week, Crikey published a list of councillors who are MP staffers. Under the new legislation, up to 40 listees will have to choose between local government and their MP’s office. The change, currently being drafted, is specifically designed to sever the umbilical cord that binds MPs and their factional buddies on Victorian councils.
In the event of resignations in single-member wards, by-elections will be called, at a not insignificant cost — around $50,000 a pop according to the Municipal Association of Victoria. But the majority of conflicted councillors serve in multi-member wards, where a countback system will determine the outcome.
Under a Labor-initiated change to the Local Government Act, only the departing candidate’s votes, rather than the ward’s total votes, are included in the recount. In practice, that generally means the first unelected candidate on the exiting councillor’s how-to-vote card will get up — usually a factional mate or stooge.
In fact, ALP rules specifically prohibit the preferencing of non-ALP candidates on council HTVs. Insiders say around 20 candidates were expelled by the Administrative Committee for breaches following last year’s council elections.
If councillors resign en masse — a realistic scenario given the average salary of around $15,000 a year — the new factional landscape will be almost indistinguishable from the status-quo, even when factoring in lower HTV loyalty at local government polls.
Crikey’s analysis of preference flows in Victorian multi-member wards bears this out.
At the Moreland Council election last November, 51 candidates vied for 11 vacant positions, with a tranche of dummy candidates funneling preferences to the ALP Right.
In South Ward, the resignation of mayor Lambros Tapinos is would probably lead to the election of Raghida Saliba, named in this document as central to Labor’s plans in Moreland. There’s a distinct chance that Tapinos might be tempted to jump ship as the legislation could come online close to the end of his term. The position of Mayor would then go to a vote.
In North East Ward, the resignation of Michael Teti would probably mean the robes will be handed to close associate Marleine Raffoul.
North West Ward might be the exception that proves the rule — the resignation of Enver Erdogan would probably result in the elevation of Ilia Vurtel, a candidate vaguely aligned with factional turncoat Bob Sercombe, although this is far from certain.
Meanwhile, at the Socialist Left stronghold of Whittlesea Council, the resignation of long-time Harry Jenkins Electorate Officer Sam Alessi would almost certainly lead to the re-elevation of former mayor Elizabeth Nealy, the daughter of fellow Whittlesea councilor Frank Merlino. Merlino, Nealy, Alessi and current Mayor Mary Lalios eagerly serve the same factional deity, as this scathing article (written by current Tim Pallas media adviser Bill Kyriakopoulos) demonstrates. Alessi might be leaned on to do the right thing by his one time protégé.
“Mate, you’ve got to understand it’s their council”, sole Whittlesea independent Rex Griffin told Crikey.
In Darebin’s Rucker Ward, a departing Steven Tsitas would likely be replaced, not by leading independent vote getter Darren Lewin-Hill, but by Hua Cao, the wife of fellow Darebin Councillor and Labor Unity machine man Stanley Chiang. Tsitas, a former Nazih Elasmar staffer, is believed to now be ensconced at ALP head office. Sources say he values his position in the ALP machine and would likely depart the council when Brumby’s legislation is pushed through.
An amazing number of dummies ran in the two other Darebin wards and the family connections run deep as this article demonstrates.
Of course, some councillors may decide to stay on and simply resign as advisers. Those contacted by Crikey said they would wait until the legislation was drafted before making a decision. But some might be tempted to exit stage right, especially if they covet a career in Canberra.
The better alternative, critics say, might be to conduct a countback under the rival West Australian system, that would include all votes, not just the departing councillor’s. That would require another change to the Local Government Act and might throw up different results. But if John Brumby is serious about clearing out the dead wood, a sweeping series of by-elections would allow ratepayers to send the sclerotic factions a message — at a fraction of the cost of a new soccer club.