Two newspapers, two stories, same source of conflict. Amazingly no-one has yet drawn the link between the bitter brawl that consumed the now defunct Victorian Health Services Union’s number 1 branch in 2009, the Craig Thomson fiasco and David Feeney’s fading bid to hold his seat in federal parliament.

Feeney may have featured prominently on the inaugural Power Index political fixers list yesterday, but as Crikey noted back in January he probably won’t retain that posse for much longer. The pugnacious former Melbourne University Student Union office bearer got lucky in 2007, picking up his Senate posse from the number three “death spot”. But with the polls heading south, there is almost zero chance of a repeat miracle in 2013.

As John Ferguson noted in The Australian this morning, an even more horrifying prospect for Feeney would be the unwinnable number four spot, behind the SDA’s Jacinta Collins, leaving him to search for scraps in the lower house. But the central problem remains that under a 2009 stability pact between the Socialist Left and the so-called “Shortcons”, Feeney’s rebel right clique — partly bankrolled by the HSUA — is formally denied a foothold in any Victorian state or federal seat for the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, over at the Daily Telegraph, Dobell MP and former HSU national secretary Craig Thomson has been featuring heavily, with a flimsy front page yesterday describing an apparent altercation at a pokies debate, followed up today with something about Labor funding Thomson’s brothel defamation action against Fairfax. An accompanying editorial suggested that Thomson “step aside” while investigations are carried out.

The main game for the Tele of course, is a by-election in Thomson’s seat leading to the overthrow of the Gillard government.

But neither story would have emerged if wasn’t for the 2008 split in the Victorian Right, followed by the bitter battle for control of the Victorian HSUA and culminating in some of the most horrendous sh*t sheets ever seen in Australian politics.

After preselection for the 2008 Kororoit by-election split the right, a sordid back and forth between HSU national secretary Kathy Jackson, her ex-husband and then-secretary Jeff Jackson and then president Pauline Fegan gained fresh momentum. It combusted spectacularly at an April 2009 crisis meeting at Melbourne’s Dallas Brooks Hall.

The Jacksons, wedded to Feeney courtesy of the split, had declared war on Fegan and her notional supporters Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy and the allegations were returned with interest. Then the leaked letters started flying — one written by Kathy Jackson implicating Thomson, followed in quick succession by a statement from Fegan of “a union-issued credit card issued to Jeff Jackson” featuring charges tagged to “Keywed Pty Ltd”, which collects money for the Sydney Outcalls brothel.

Amazingly, the Jackson letter, produced two years ago to service a tit for tat Victorian factional exchange, continues to be the root cause of Thomson’s troubles today. (Interestingly, Thomson has stated that another man, who he hasn’t named, was the person who wielded the card).

After winning control of the union at the 2009 elections, Kathy Jackson went on to consolidate her support, forming a HSU “east branch” with ally, and then ALP national president, Michael Williamson.

Labor insiders have told Crikey there was certainly no love lost between the Jacksons and the Shortcons, even before their formal divorce in 2008. And Feeney, as the national figurehead of the Jacksons’ emergent Taliban faction, was at the centre of the festering tension.

One of Feeney’s most loyal staffers, Stephen Donnelly, produces the sub-faction’s own ‘communiqué‘. And during the $50,000 Supreme Court battle over preselection for the Victorian state seat of Broadmeadows in January, Kathy Jackson was a plaintiff. One reading of that dispute — which was destined to fail — was not to install Burhan Yigit over Frank McGuire, but to lock in support for Feeney’s future battles. Yigit controls nine state conference votes and two slots on the 100-member Public Office Selection Committee.

Feeney’s rebel right alliance counts for under 200 votes in the 606-delegate Victorian state conference and therefore about 35-40% of the central panel — not nearly enough to influence preselections unless a groundswell occurs at the grassroots (under Victorian ALP rules, preselection is divided 50-50 between the branches and the central panel). As luck would have it, Yigit’s foot soldiers are concentrated in Maria Vamvakinou’s seat of Calwell.

But that strategy might not work. Labor insiders say Feeney is in an invidious position because when nominations for 2013 open he has to choose either the Senate or the House of Reps — he can’t nominate for both. To make way for him, someone — perhaps a retiring Martin Ferguson in Batman, perhaps Harry Jenkins in Scullin, would have to tip him off in advance — hardly a likely scenario.

Still, if history is any guide, Feeney, and his union backers in Kathy Jackson and the SDA, will fight to the death, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the Gillard Government.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey