Beleaguered ALP backbencher Belinda Neal’s prospects of rising from political purgatory have suffered another setback after three staffers were ruled ineligible to vote in the March 6 poll to decide her future.

A confidential letter sent by Gosford branch secretary John Gifford, and obtained by Crikey, reveals that key Neal loyalists — media minder Chris Keating, electorate officer Dez Karlsson and staffer Paul Sullivan — have been excluded from the ballot under anti-branch-stacking rules. A fourth member, Carmel Hinkley, has also been barred. Under NSW ALP rules, a member is only permitted to vote in preselections if they were financial for at least two years before nominations are called and had attended at least four meetings in that period.

Keating, Karlsson and Sullivan all joined the Gosford branch in the months following Neal’s victory at the 2007 federal election.

The ruling means the Gosford’s eight remaining votes will almost certainly fall in behind rival candidate Deborah O’Neill, adding to the list of branches deserting the local member.

Yesterday, Crikey revealed that the Mangrove Mountain “Greek branch” was preparing to back O’Neill, despite president George Sidiropoulos’ former loyalty to Neal and husband John Della Bosca. Ourimbah Narara Valley passed a unanimous motion last week calling on Neal to resign “for the good of the nation” while Wamberal-Terrigal is also expected to support O’Neill after branch member Darryl Bowling distributed a scathing email calling for an insurrection.

“It’s difficult to see where Belinda’s support is going to come from now”, said one ALP insider who did not want to be named.

“The loss of Gosford is just another nail in the coffin.”

Gosford, and several other Robertson branches, were famously subject to a pro-Neal takeover in the months following the 2007 federal election, as the new MP farmed out loyalists to seize control. In one incident, Crikey understands that former Terrigal branch secretary and Neal campaign manager Donna Judd, her husband, her cleaning lady and her cleaning lady’s daughter were asked by Neal’s forces to join the Gosford branch, but the putsch was skittled on a technicality.

Karlsson and Keating were present at the infamous Iguana Joe’s incident in June 2008, and penned sworn statements backing their boss’ version of events. A fourth Neal staffer and then Gosford member, Melissa Batten, also attended before quitting her job and the party after claiming on A Current Affair that Neal pressured her into altering a statutory declaration to exclude the words “don’t you know who I am?”

Senior ALP powerbrokers are believed to have undertaken internal polling in Robertson, which revealed that the Iguanagate saga has irretrievably damaged the ALP brand, with the party hoping O’Neill can salvage a narrow victory.

Robertson Federal Electoral Council president Katie Smith told Crikey that it was too early to know whether Neal’s staffers would be eligible to vote because “credentialing hadn’t taken place”, despite the written rebuff from the Gosford secretary.

Smith also disputed a story that appeared in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, which said members were preparing to lay charges over radio advertisements spruiking Neal’s record. Smith said that no ALP rules had been broken, that the charges were a fabrication, and that NSW ALP state secretary Matt Thistlethwaite had told Telegraph journalist Simon Benson that he wanted the story pulled as the Tele‘s deadline approached on Wednesday night.

Peter Fray

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