Outgoing Labor MP Steve Gibbons has delivered an impressive sledge against internal ALP rivals considering imposing their own candidate on his federal seat of Bendigo, imploring powerbrokers to adhere to a “proper f-cking process”.
Gibbons, who was elected in 1998 and is the longest serving member in Bendigo’s history, was responding to erroneous media reports suggesting “Taliban”-aligned senator David Feeney was angling to be his successor in the seat, which he holds by an impressive 10%.
“I definitely wouldn’t support David Feeney or anyone else administrative people from Melbourne impose on us,” Gibbons said. “We’re going to have a proper preselection, we’re actually going to have candidate forums and address branch members.
“It’s called a proper f-cking process … and they’ll be lots of worthy candidates. I’ll be taking a hands off approach but I’ll help whoever it is with their campaign.”
Gibbons said that “Bendigo boy” and Julia Gillard chief-of-staff Ben Hubbard might have been a contender but because he had ruled out running, the thought bubble wouldn’t be entertained any further.
Yesterday, federal ALP secretary George Wright nixed the Victorian branch administrative committee’s bid to open preselections in October– with the process now slated until early in the New Year. But Gibbons told Crikey it was important to start the renewal process now and develop a solid slate of candidates.
The popular local champion questioned the Victorian ALP’s so-called “stability pact” that divides up state and federal preselections between the Left and the Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy half of the Right for the next eight years. Under the pact, Bendigo is reserved for the Socialist Left, of which Gibbons is nominally a member.
“”Stability breeds instability … they only do that to protect their own positions, why should we even consult it? I would surprised if it survives between now and the next election. There’s no excuse to not have a proper process.”
Feeney’s name has been bandied about because under the pact he will almost certainly be shunted to an unwinnable number four position on the Victorian senate ticket. His future has become a amusing source of speculation within Labor circles as the party awaits retirements before the 2013 poll. Despite speculation about Kelvin Thomson in Wills, Gibbons is the only MP to announce his intention to step aside.
Feeney — a former Melbourne University office bearer whose local office was evacuated due to a white powder scare this morning — is in an invidious position because he will need to rely on a chop out from his bitter internal Labor Unity enemies to keep his place in Canberra. He will be expected to appeal to their fealty to the national right to maintain a foothold.
Bendigo is thought to be a thoroughly unsuitable arena for unexpected thrill kill. The FEA comprises five branches — Woodend, Kyneton, Castlemaine, Bendigo and Bendigo South — and about 220 members in total. Only 20 of those are believed to be formal factional players with the rest resolutely independent. Under ALP rules, preselections are decided by a 50% grassroots vote and a 50% vote of a central selection panel.
One senior left factional source joined in the criticism this morning, branding Feeney an “apparatchik from central casting who is married to a high-profile lawyer and lived in East Melbourne”:
“I can confidently say that not a single voter in that seat would support David Feeney. When you have 100% on the ground and 70% you can generally chalk that up as a win. Where’s his genius that’s been manifest? Whatever his contribution has been it seems to have been missed by most observers.”
The source said that because no-one else had chosen to retire, the question of his future was academic. “There’s going to be some bomb throwing but that depends on a vacancy,” the source said.
Crikey understands that Alan Griffin in Bruce is unlikely to pull the pin, with Anna Burke in Chisholm only a slightly more likely prospect at this point. For the moment, the party’s focus is on digesting the latest internal FEA elections, which apart from some madness in Wills, turned out mostly as expected.
Gibbons, a veteran activist who achieved a 7% swing as Bendigo campaign director at the 1980 election, entered parliament in 1998 and a dip in 2004 aside, turned what was once a marginal seat — John Brumby lost it in 1990 to Liberal Bruce Reid — into safe Labor territory (and, more unusually, safe regional Labor territory).
Last year he strengthened his margin to nearly 10% against a poor Liberal candidate. He has worked assiduously on behalf of his electorate on infrastructure spending — even under the Howard government — and is a dogged representative of local companies. Bendigo contains the Thales defence manufacturing facility and Gibbons has been an aggressive and effective advocate of the Bushmaster vehicle, almost certainly earning an array of bitter foes within the Defence Materiel Organisation.
His departure will put Bendigo back into play at the next election, but only if the Liberals can pick a decent candidate. It also deprives Labor of an increasingly rare type — before politics, Gibbons, a car nut, was a unionist, mechanic and assistant to Brumby and is anything but the cookie-cutter professional apparatchik now being churned out across the party.