A storm has erupted inside the Victorian ALP on the question of election tactics, after a ham fisted intervention from dumped party secretary Stephen Newnham almost certainly ended Bronwyn Pike’s political career.

This morning, inner-Melbourne’s paper of record The Age splashed with a front-page story revealing that Newnham had been badgering senior members of the Jewish community to remind them that Pike’s Greens’ opponent, Brian Walters SC, had represented alleged Nazi war criminal Konrads Kalejs nine years ago.

The paper had received a dossier apparently compiled either by Newnham or his factional associates with the clear implication the barrister was anti-Semitic. But rather than paint the Kalejs connection as a negative for Walters, reporters Royce Millar and Rafael Epstein unsurprisingly framed it as further evidence of the Brumby government’s pernicious dirt unit.

Senior Victorian ALP factional figures charged with defusing the Greens threat are now bemoaning the Labor Unity stalwart’s botched salvo, which has cast a pall over Pike’s principled public profile.

“Newnham has gone rogue,” one source told Crikey this morning. “It makes Bronwyn look like a disgrace.”

The involvement of Newnham, whose wife Fiona Richardson is desperately trying to beat off Greens candidate Anne Martinelli in Northcote, means the urbane denizens of Melbourne and Richard Wynne’s seat of Richmond are now more likely to abandon Labor on November 27. Pike holds Melbourne by just 2% and party sources say The Age‘s revelations are the final nail in her coffin.

Since leaving Labor HQ after a protracted power struggle a year ago, Newnham has set up his own consulting firm, CPI Strategic, alongside ex-Liberal mastermind Rick Brown. However, while formally off the payroll, he retains close links with the party through Richardson and his fractional ally at King Street, deputy state secretary Noah Carroll.

News of Newnham’s ploy comes just one day after The Sunday Herald Sun — also on its front page — reported the marginally more newsworthy facts of Walters’ investment in a Queensland factory and his work for Downer EDI in a workplace death case. But rather than let the facts speak for themselves, Labor decided to trot out Pike to slam the SC as a “hypocrite”.

“It’s no wonder the voters of Melbourne can’t pick the difference between the Liberals and Greens,” the MP said, with back-up from departing state secretary Nick Reece and Treasurer John Lenders almost certainly digging their candidate’s political grave.

Walters is usually covered by the ‘cab rank’ principle which mandates that barristers are obligated to accept briefs, although legal sources told Crikey this morning that the veteran SC could have avoided the Downer case if he really wanted to. But that point is unlikely to sway progressive voters, with the sheer fact of the smear enough to raise heckles in the ballot box.

One Pike loyalist detached from the maelstrom viewed Newnham’s approach with amusement: “Ultimately tactics like this reinforce the perception that inner-city voters already have about ALP.”

They said the split is emblematic of the divide over tactics within the Labor Party over how to best confront the Greens: “We’ve already lost Melbourne but it’s fair to say that there’s very definitely two schools of thought … there’s the kill, smash and destroy group that believe that we need to smash the Greens and then there’s the group that feel we need to win by actually campaigning better and proving we have better policies and not staying in the mud. This is a complete f-cking disaster.”

In the seat of Richmond, the old-style campaigning favoured by Newnham, in which the party revelled in briefing the Herald Sun on nefarious plans for the erection of heroin injecting rooms, has been replaced with a positive message emphasising Labor’s action on progressive cornerstones like windfarms.

The attack on Walters could also be pointless, given that many inner-city voters base their decision not on individuals but the broader “Greens TM” brand. “They’re [the candidate] almost irrelevant to the proposition,” one source said.

However, other oracles said that rather than targeting Greens voters, Newnham, who did not return Crikey‘s calls, may have been trying to influence powerful Liberal sympathisers to pressure Ted Baillieu to preference Labor ahead of the Greens. An unprecedented preference deal between Baillieu and Brumby could still save the government’s — and Pike’s — skin in up to four lower house seats.

Peter Fray

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