The ALP preselection battle for the seat of Fraser in the ACT will climax on April 24 when 236 preselectors will attend the White Eagle Polish Club in suburban Turner and select a replacement for Labor veteran Bob McMullan.

There’s a strong, large field, but the Left’s Nick Martin will be the candidate to beat.

The fate of the Fraser preselection is bound up with that of neighbouring seat Canberra, vacated by MP Annette Ellis after she was forced out by factional maneuvering in the wake of McMullan’s retirement.

Traditionally in Canberra the Left has held the Senate position, the Right has held the southern seat of Canberra, and the unaligned McMullan held Fraser. Fraser has a strong unaligned grouping, which, while not always big enough to defeat the numbers of the Left and the Right if they combine, has been strong enough to keep McMullan and ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope in place.

McMullan’s retirement has thrown the seat into play, but the Right — composed of the Centre Coalition and Labor Unity sub-factions — faced difficulties of its own down in Canberra, where Centre Coalition’s Michael Cooney had hoped to replace Ellis. The Centre Coalition proposed a deal with the Left that Cooney be accommodated in Canberra in exchange for support from the Centre Coalition in Fraser.

The difficulty, however, is that factional discipline tends to break down around preselections. The Left candidate in Canberra, Louise Crossman, withdrew, but the Left could not deliver a deal for Cooney partly because of his anti-abortion views, and he withdrew, along with another Right candidate (Jenny Hargreaves). Mary Wood, who moved to Canberra three years ago and is a staffer to Tanya Plibersek, looks set to win preselection if the Left can deliver its votes and the Right doesn’t split.

In Fraser, the Centre Coalition candidate, Dave Peebles, withdrew as part of the deal with the Left, leaving current ALP federal assistant secretary Nick Martin as the factional choice. However, he’s up against several quality competitors. Constitutional expert and peripatetic Labor candidate George Williams is running, somewhat surprisingly, as the Labor Unity sub-faction candidate. Labor Unity is poorly represented in Fraser and Williams is running as a virtual independent to try to attract sufficient support.

Also running is the outstanding young ANU economist Andrew Leigh. Leigh has worked the phones hard, having called some preselectors four times already, and his wife has been calling on his behalf as well. Canberra dentist Chris Bourke is also highly regarded within the party and locally in Canberra, and would be the first indigenous member of the House of Representatives. And then there’s Mike Hettinger, actual rocket scientist and decorated USAF veteran of the first Gulf War, who narrowly missed being elected to the ACT Assembly despite his unaligned background.

And then there’s Michael Pilbrow, a candidate with strong support among senior Labor figures, a former diplomat and now foreign aid consultant.  Pilbrow is unusual in having gained a strong reputation locally outside ACT politics for his work rebuilding one of Canberra’s less prestigious communities, Charnwood. Pilbrow led a group that established in Charnwood the ACT’s first community-owned-and-run bulk-billing health co-op in January this year, after several years of effort. And in 2004, Pilbrow also brought together the local Charnwood government school and Catholic school communities in a joint fund raising and community building effort, the “Charny Carny”, which he continues to co-ordinate.

This sort of grassroots non-political organising and local involvement shown by Pilbrow used to be de rigueur for most politicians. Ben Chifley, almost absurdly, continued as local councillor on the Abercrombie Shire Council while Prime Minister. Labor’s factions instead now produce candidates such as Martin — by all accounts a decent bloke — whose experience is limited to the party and the party machine.

Pilbrow’s problem, like that of the other non-factional candidates, is that he needs a tight preference exchange with other unaligned candidates if they are to stay in the race against Martin, who is expected to start out strongly but without enough momentum to claim an early win. If the unsuccessful candidates — there are likely to be 11 — leak preferences to Martin as they are knocked out, the stronger candidates such as Pilbrow, Williams, Leigh and Bourke won’t be able to stop him.

That means McMullan, one of Labor’s genuinely independent figures who missed out on a ministry under Rudd because of his lack of factional backing, will be replaced by a machine man and another example of the new breed of professional politician.