A senior staffer for Victorian Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews, Chris Reilly, has emerged as a strong candidate to replace the retiring Martin Ferguson as the next member for Batman. But he is likely to rub up against the supreme will of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is backing “death spot” Senator David Feeney.

Crikey can reveal that Reilly, a respected ALP strategist who runs the Labor leader’s press operation in Victoria, has indicated an abiding interest in contesting the preselection race for the prized federal seat.

Under the 2009 “stability pact” that determines preselections negotiated between Labor Unity and Reilly’s Socialist Left faction, Batman is subject to “further discussions” in the event of a vacancy.

But Reilly, a Batman local, faces a difficult task. In addition to sidestepping the PM and getting powerbrokers to agree to a ballot, he will need to secure the support of the rank and file in four Left branches (including his own Reservoir branch) and also tap a majority bloc of Maronite forces aligned with the Shop Assistants’ Union and Victorian upper house MP Nazih Elasmar. There are about 900 members on the Batman roll.

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Under party rules, preselections are usually decided by a 50% vote of the local branches and a 50% vote of the central Public Office Selection Committee.

However, factional tsars sometimes directly intervene — there are grave fears that in the absence of a contested preselection, the seat could be gifted by Labor’s national executive to Feeney. The former Melbourne University Student Union officer bearer currently occupies the number 3 spot on the ALP Senate ticket and will almost certainly be ejected from Parliament on September 14. A Feeney resignation to contest Batman would require Labor to appoint a nightwatchman until his term expires on June 30, 2014.

There is now mounting pressure on local SDA-aligned powerbrokers to declare their hand. One well-informed operative with direct knowledge of the situation told Crikey that in his view Feeney was safe and had the backing of the PM. “It would unlikely that there would be any eventuality that wouldn’t involve David getting up,” the operative said.”Sometimes it just takes awhile for the obvious outcome to become clear.”

Feeney, a Kathy Jackson supporter, might also be able to count on the support of Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy’s Labor Unity faction in exchange for a clean run for LU at the next round of Health Services Union elections.

It is understood that owing to the status and margin in the safe seat, Labor would be looking to pick someone who is “cabinet material”. A range of senior Left-aligned trade union figures may well have their temperatures taken to gauge interest. One name often mentioned in despatches is Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union national secretary Michele O’Neil. Local possibilities include Right-aligned Darebin councillor and former mayor Steven Tsitas and even SL-loyal deputy mayor Gaetano Greco. Greco polled higher than any other Labor candidate in the 2012 Darebin elections, has a strong local profile and is a committed trade unionist.

Ferguson, a former resources minister and ACTU president whose political stocks soured when he endorsed Kevin Rudd’s return to the leadership, tearily announced his retirement in Parliament, drawing kudos from both sides of the House. He will depart at the election.

His Independent Left faction, while a shadow of its former self, has residual support from a handful of rank-and-file members in Batman and Gorton, and maintains a union base inside elements of the Australian Services Union, the Health and Community Services Union and the forestry division of the Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union. Ferguson was originally parachuted into the seat in 1995 by the national executive under a deal with Labor Unity.

Labor holds Batman with a 2PP margin of 25%, despite a significant swing to the Greens in 2010. On a 2CP margin it is technically within striking distance of the minor party, who came within 8% last time after Liberal preferences were distributed. However, owing to a popular decision of the state Libs before the November 2010 Victorian election to preference against the Greens, the Tories are likely to go to Labor first in September.