Grassroots ALP members in the NSW seat of Gosford are staring down the return of their bête noire Belinda Neal to the political spotlight after the dumped Iguanagate MP was elected as a delegate to this year’s Labor state conference.
Crikey can reveal that in a controversial vote last week, Neal was elevated as a delegate from Gosford uncontested, after ex-lieutenant and failed Gosford candidate Katie Smith withdrew at the last minute.
The appointment has sparked fears that Neal, who controls the Woy-Woy branch, will use the televised forum on July 9 and 10 to kickstart a renewed bid for power.
Under NSW ALP rules, two conference delegates are elected from each state district and three from each federal electorate. Neal has previously served as a state conference delegate but that era was cut short by her elevation to federal parliament in 2007.
A senior ALP Left MP blasted the Neal resurgence as a shambles this morning:
“It’s about time that she put the Labor party on the Central Coast and in NSW out of its misery and ceased all involvement in Labor Party affairs.
“People are just sick and tired of Belinda Neal and her never ending sense of entitlement. In the name of God, go,” they said.
A Central Coast ALP insider added to the vitriol, saying they were “shocked” by the outcome, claiming that the “forces of darkness” had prevailed under the radar.
“No one stepped aside this year, but rather fell down open manholes.”
The source claimed Neal had long relied on bogus attendances at Woy-Woy, in addition to a number of other “phantom” branches which appear to have very few regular members, to maintain a foothold on power.
Gosford predictably fell to the Liberals at this year’s state election after former member Marie Andrews announced her retirement. Katie Smith suffered a massive 15% swing against her and since then has been keen to distance herself from Neal and powerbroker husband John Della Bosca.
However, the pro-Neal push appears to be spreading beyond Gosford.
In the adjacent Entrance district, two former left-aligned delegates to State Conference were subsumed by candidates supported by people associated with Belinda’s former Federal Parliamentary colleague, the federal member for Dobell Craig Thomson.
That coup was an especially sweet victory for Neal’s forces, because one of those dumped was outspoken former Ourimbah-Narara Valley branch president Norm Hanscombe. During last year’s extended fracas over Neal’s preselection in Robertson, Hanscombe emerged as rebel lynchpin, appearing on Lateline to call time on the unpopular MP’s career.
The feisty veteran had sent a letter to local to ALP branch members claiming he’d have to move to another federal electorate if Neal was again imposed on Robertson by the ALP’s federal edifice. In the letter, Hanscombe complained that ALP Rules meant he was obliged to vote for Neal in a general election. A month later, Neal lost the bitter preselection vote by 98-67 to current Robertson MP Deb O’Neill.
Central Coast observers say the broader power shift also signals the demise of dissent to the NSW ALP head office’s plans to reduce local branch influence by introducing an American-style primary system for pre-selection voting.
A spokesperson for Deb O’Neill declined to comment on the resurgence, saying the new member was getting on with the job of representing voters in an ultra-marginal seat.
Belinda Neal did not return a message left on her mobile phone.