ALP members in the NSW Central Coast seat of Robertson have dealt a blow to sitting member Belinda Neal’s political future, passing a motion last night rejecting central intervention to pick a candidate for next year’s federal poll.

The non-binding Left-backed motion was passed unanimously by Federal Electoral Council delegates, comprising representatives from dissident branches and those controlled by Neal. Crikey understands that Neal, who attended the meeting, agreed to accept the motion only to avoid a fight with locals.

Several letters expressing concern with Neal’s candidacy were on the agenda last night, however Crikey understands they were not tabled.

The controversial backbencher owes her current seat in parliament to the intervention of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who stepped in in the lead-up to the 2007 poll to ensure her spot on the ballot paper.

A rank-and-file vote would almost certainly spell the end for Neal, with dissent still running high following last year’s notorious Iguanagate incident. She has never won a contested preselection vote, relying instead on the whim of party powerbrokers that include her husband, John Della Bosca.

On Monday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported leaked internal polling indicating a 20% swing against Neal and Della Bosca based on the views of 650 voters around the power couple’s Gosford heartland.

Even if she avoids a local vote, Neal’s chances at running again in 2010 appear to be withering. The PM again has threatened federal intervention, but is said to be wavering over whether to stick with Neal or install a political cleanskin untainted by the saga surrounding the notorious events at Iguana Joe’s, which led to Neal taking anger-management classes on his advice.

The Robertson MP saw her fortunes rise after an impressive performance on the Q&A program last month and a glossy spread in the September issue of Women’s Weekly, in which she forgave her husband for his affair with a 26-year-old entertainer.

Neal’s record in securing local support is poor. In November 2000, she narrowly lost the local vote against bitter rival Trish Moran and threatened legal action after claiming the ballot was rigged. Then-Labor leader Kim Beazley nixed her complaints and backed Moran, who stumbled against sitting Liberal Jim Lloyd on polling day. In 2004, the Neal-backed candidate, Daniel Cook, was beaten in a local vote, also by Moran.

In June, the ALP’s national executive approved a motion calling on a five-man flying squad comprising Anthony Albanese, Mark Arbib, Mark Butler, Bill Shorten and Bill Ludwig to oversee preselections and avoid any nasty surprises. It has already halted preselections in several marginal seats. Neal’s Robertson electorate is on a knife edge, held by Labor by just 0.1%.

Today, federal resources minister Martin Ferguson and Della-Bosca favourite Ian Macdonald will attend a $1200-a-head fundraiser for the Neal campaign at NSW Parliament House (not yesterday, as was previously reported). The shadow fundraising effort has failed to receive the official backing of locals and follows an aborted Keating: The Musical film screening and a trivia night hosted last Saturday by Della Bosca.

It is unknown where the money raised outside of official channels will end up.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey