As Clover Moore mulls her enforced divorce from the Macquarie Street bearpit, the NSW Labor Party has begun to rattle swords in its primary preselection process for September’s near-unwinnable lord mayor race with six candidates jockeying for the rapidly-decaying soul of the inner city.

High-profile hopefuls — including Cameron “son of Lionel” Murphy and Australian gadfly Cassandra Wilkinson — have been busy updating their campaign websites over the last week that although mostly lacking for detailed policy ideas, show just how faux-seriously the ALP is taking its nascent experiment with grassroots democracy.

Other players have also been active. On Thursday, Anthony Albanese speechwriter and factional cleanskin Vivienne “Viv” Skinner blogged on her Team Viv site about a recent red wine session with press gallery lurker Rhys Muldoon. But this morning, in an eleventh-hour reverse ferret, Skinner withdrew from the race claiming that with her busy day job implementing Albo’s city’s agenda she couldn’t “do justice to it”.

“I need much more time than I now have,” the former Channel 7 newsreader wrote from Canberra.

Sydney’s 90,000 residents will be spammed with Labor ballot papers worth 50% of the vote before May 14, which may also include satellite booths set up in shopping centres and online (much of it will fall foul of letterbox junk mail directives and end up in CoS recycling bins). Then, on June 2, a proportion of the 600 mostly left-leaning ALP branch members will congregate at ALP HQ in Sussex Street to decide on the second 50%.

The victor will face the impossible task of beating Moore in the council ballot who, pending the lack of a scandal, will almost certainly be returned with interest following the passing of Barry O’Farrell’s “get Clover” law, officially ticked off by governor Marie Bashir on Friday amid protests from the popular dog-collared MP who has controlled the CBD for a quarter of a century since her ascension to Bligh in 1988.

With defeat all but assured, a second prize for participants — despite Sam Dastyari’s talk of “revitalisation” —  is not the mayoralty, but a regular council spot, or even their name on the ballot paper at the by-election triggered by Moore’s forced resignation. That of course, would also end in tears with the Liberals almost assured of victory and a 70th lower house seat when Moore’s personal vote is stripped from the equation.

Murphy, the media-savvy NSW Council for Civil Liberties chief, has hit the ground running, employing former eight-year NSW left assistant secretary Damian O’Connor to work the numbers and plot strategy. Current Left assistant secretary John Graham is also backing the Murphy campaign as the faction’s official candidate.*

His campaign website is yet to unveil the promised comprehensive suite of policy proposals but is already soliciting donations from individuals of up to $500.

The Right’s Wilkinson is also sashaying — her headshot recently appeared above the fold on the front page of The Weekend Oz and she was the author of a book, Don’t Panic — Nearly Everything is Better Than You Think, that enraged those lefties still convinced of the deleterious effects of unfettered capitalism.

One leftite said Wilkinson, who is married to Labor Right scion Paul McLeay, the son of Leo McLeay, would struggle to make any impact at all in the inner city given the luvvies’ loyalty to the Tanya Plibersek school of SL solidarity.

But the feisty Wilkinson rejected that assessment, telling Crikey that “the contest would see whether the Labor Party can produce a group of adults without performing like children or crooks.”

“I’ll be conducting the preselection process with dignity and passion and without ripping into the others,” she said, drawing our attention to her Tumblr page that already includes screeds on deliberative budgeting and late night pub tippling.

Wilkinson has a 15-year involvement with community radio station FBi and will be hoping to parlay that street cred into her standing with locals. However, her association with the Institute of Public Affairs-sponsored Cambodian Human Capital Project may dissuade some.

“I am humbled and overwhelmed by the offers of support … this is not really a question of winning or losing but about really changing the way the we play the game,” she said.

Other likely types  include Kings Cross branch member and refugee legal academic type Damian Spruce, who recently uploaded a campaign page that contains a “vision” but not much in the way of actual policy.

Labor for Refugees spear carrier Linda Scott, veteran former South Sydney machine man Vic Smith — who ran against Moore in Bligh in 1999 — and Emperor’s Garden Chinese restaurant manager and Asian Friends of Labor coordinator Jonathan Yee round out the roster (Emperor’s Garden was savagely overlooked for last December’s National Left Dinner with Albanese-aligned forces instead saddling up at the Zilver establishment a few blocks away). One insider said Yee may be in with a shot if he is able to corral Chinatown to vote en masse in a strategy reminiscent of George Galloway’s recent triumph in Bradford West.

The actual mayoral election is a dubious process in which voters finger their preferred Mayoral candidate, who then effectively divides their surplus vote among previously-chosen acolytes on the councillor ticket. Moore’s massive popularity in 2008 gifted her 5 additional positions on the 10 member council, with the Greens holding two councillors and Labor and Liberal one each. (In more enlightened Melbourne there are also two separate ballots — one for the Mayor and Deputy Mayor and another for remaining councillors but the second ballot doesn’t don’t the Mayor’s name).

Labor’s losers will need to start again to secure a spot the successful candidate’s ballot paper with a separate ALP internal process will be held later in the year to pick candidates 2-8. The primary process will then be repeated for the looming Sydney by-election. Skinner ruled herself out of both tilts when contacted by Crikey this morning.

The primary season is the brainchild of ALP general secretary Dastyari, who is keen to distance himself from his right faction’s historical infatuation with N40 overrides (while simultaneously welching on other elements of the Bracks-Carr-Faulkner reforms floated by the Left at National Conference) and “shake up” the party. Further experiments are planned in five not-really-winnable states seats before 2015.

Labor’s sole retiring councillor is Meredith Burgmann, the former NSW upper house president who alongside her sister and Crikey‘s former politics lecturer Verity Burgmann bravely ran on to the SCG in 1971 to protest the Springboks tour. (Burgmann’s niece is defeated Balmain MP Verity Firth whose brother, comedian Charles Firth, is married to former Unions NSW organising brain and GetUp director Amanda Tattersall).

Other parties’ preselection strategies follow the traditional central panel-grassroots split. The Liberal decision will be determined by a weighted vote in favour local party members and buttressed by Liberal head office — current councillor and 2003 Bligh candidate Shayne Mallard has already been confirmed as the Mayoral candidate. The Libs, still basking in the BoF afterglow, are talking up their chances but may fall flat at the hands of Oxford Street types not quite ready to tongue pash the Tories.

And Moore apparently operates an opaque kitchen cabinet preselection process controlled by veteran numbers man Larry Galbraith and husband Peter Moore.

Previous ALP primary experiments have proven questionable, with the April 2010 Victorian Kilsyth contest falling flat after just 136 members of the public bothered to vote. Gallingly, the swing on polling day against Labor exceeded the Metropolitan Melbourne swing by 3 percentage points.

For all the talk of regeneration, and with Moore playing the martyr card, Laborites are bracing for a similarly disappointing result. Interested onlookers can tune into the Twitter hashtag #cos12 to watch the mayhem unfold.

*UPDATE: John Graham has been in touch to say that the Left is not officially endorsing a candidate.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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