Telstra corporate affairs tsar and former Stephen Conroy adviser Tim Watts is poised to take out the bitter internal Labor battle for the federal seat of Gellibrand, effectively delivering him a lifelong sinecure on Capital Hill’s green leather.

Crikey can reveal that Watts, who did not return calls this morning, will almost certainly walk away from tonight’s meeting of Labor’s powerful Public Office Selection Committee the victor in his three-way intra-Right stoush for the prized position.

A senior source for his main rival, former Nicola Roxon staffer Katie Hall, admitted to Crikey it would be “difficult to win from here”. A now-notorious dirt sheet distributed to attack Hall, which drew an angry response from Roxon and Watts camps, is believed not to have particularly influenced the vote for preselection. Gellibrand is currently the safest Labor seat in the federal Parliament, held by a margin of 23.9%.

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Crikey understands that the third major contender, former Melbourne City councillor and Labor Unity stalwart Kimberley Kitching, will withdraw from the running, honouring a previous pledge to bow out if she failed to top the local vote. She has also distanced herself from the sheet’s distribution.

Labor preselections are decided by a 50% grassroots vote combined with a 50% vote of the central Public Office Selection Committee. The local ballot, which concluded last night, left Watts on 126 votes, Kitching on 105, Hall on 87, local Daniel McKinnon on 42 and Julia Mason on four.

Kitching’s preferences will now be distributed overwhelmingly to Hall leaving the two-candidate-preferred local vote at about 191 to 149 in favour of Hall (in the null and void scenario that Kitching stayed in she would trail Watts 232 to 126 on a 2CP basis). But that would not be enough to erode Watts’ vote on the central panel, where he could expect close to 70 votes out of 100, assuming everyone turns up and votes as expected.

There is one scenario in which Hall can still triumph — if the LU caucus splits, and some POSC members support Hall, then the Left, not technically bound by its mutual support clause, could stump for Hall. But for Hall to win she would still need McKinnon to withdraw — as 24 of his votes would then flow to Hall and put her above Kitching. However a senior Left source quickly scotched that scenario, saying the prospect of Left support for Hall was “news to me”.

Crikey understands the major factor denying Kitching victory was the defection of a bloc of voters loyal to the Suleyman clan (of Brimbank Council fame) “ratting” on Kitching, delivering their votes to Watts in exchange for intra-factional deal to deliver the number three position to scion Natalie Suleyman on the ALP upper house ticket for Western Metropolitan at the 2014 state election.

The unexpected crack up is expected to flow over into other winnable state seats when redistributions for 2014 are released, straining the fabric of the so-called “ShortCons”, which make up the vast bulk of Labor Unity, and guaranteeing unexpected preselection fireworks that may annoy ascendant Victorian Labor leader Daniel Andrews.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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