It was born through a famous split in 1955 and has seen off a more recent putsch from the religious right. Now the Victorian branch of the Democratic Labor Party is facing more turmoil in the form of a high-stakes stoush between party stalwart John Mulholland and Peter Kavanagh, the party’s sole parliamentary representative.

On Saturday, Mulholland will run in the Higgins by-election with the official DLP imprimatur next to his name on the ballot paper, despite a bitter falling out with Kavanagh-aligned forces who claim on the party’s official website that it “is not running a candidate in Higgins … due to anomaly in the registration of candidates.”

Kavanagh, whose grandparents Bill and Mary Barry founded the DLP after the ALP split over communism, confirmed to Crikey this morning that the 65-year-old Mulholland had exploited a loophole as the party’s official Australian Electoral Commission contact to nominate himself for the seat, against the wishes of the state executive.

The Western Victoria MLC said the DLP hierarchy had initially selected 20-something teaching graduate Dominic Farrell as its candidate but that Mulholland had intervened to ensure his own name appeared instead. Under AEC guidelines, an official party contact is not required to be a member of a party or apparently even to be alive.

However, after securing his spot, Mulholland is believed to have completed little in the way of official campaigning in Higgins, with grassroots members having abandoned him in droves.

On Saturday, the DLP held its inaugural federal conference in Brisbane and elected a new federal secretary in Tony Zeganhagen, who is said to be hostile to Mulholland’s quest to retain his influence within the Victorian branch.

Late last year, Mulholland was tipped out as the party’s Victorian secretary and critics say he has been clinging to the last vestiges of control ever since. His dwindling support base is said to revolve around NSW branch president Michael Webb and about 10 family members in the 1500-strong party.

Next week, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal will rule on the spat, with Kavanagh confident Mulholland will be stripped of his official party endorsement.

Kavanagh told Crikey that Mulholland’s candidacy in Higgins was “disappointing” and that he was welcoming next week’s VCAT decision.

“We’re getting over our problems and we’re getting ready to offer the voters of Australia a real alternative”, he said.

“It’s just disgusting that one person’s fixation can stuff so many people’s lives up”, another prominent party member, who did not want to be named, told Crikey.

In 2006, Mulholland and Kavanagh came close to becoming parliamentary colleagues after securing favorable preference flows following ALP-endorsed reforms to the Victorian upper house. Mulholland narrowly missed out on a seat in Northern Metropolitan after alert scrutineers noticed one pile of votes had been counted twice.

The new split follows months of turmoil in the party following reports in August that fringe elements of the religious right were stacking out DLP branches in Melbourne’s northern suburbs in an ugly attempt to assume control.

However, the resignation of the chief instigator of that putsch, Right to Life President Marcel White, has returned control of the party to “moderate” forces led by Kavanagh. White, a talented soccer goalie, is now rumoured to be starting a new conservative outfit with the working title of the “Christ the King” party.

The DLP is expected to receive between 1-3% of the vote on Saturday, with a large proportion of that owing to voter confusion with the ALP, who have refused to run a candidate on strategic grounds.

Mulholland did not return Crikey‘s calls before deadline.

Peter Fray

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