High-profile Darebin mayor Tim Singh Laurence looks set to enter the increasingly crowded field to win preselection for Labor in Martin Ferguson’s seat of Batman, as Senator David Feeney’s prospects of an easy ride get harder by the day.

The City of Darebin covers more than 90% of the voters in Batman, and the long-serving Laurence did more than anyone to route the dominant Labor Unity Right faction at last year’s council elections. This left the Right with only a single remaining local representative, Cr Steven Tsitas, whose wife works for Fiona Richardson, the state MP for Northcote and former convenor of the Right faction in Victoria.

The state seats of Northcote and Preston fall entirely within Batman and Feeney used to play a key role in propping up the Darebin councillors. That was until the council was engulfed by adverse media and an ongoing ombudsman inquiry last year that coincided with David Asmar, the husband of then-Darebin mayor Diana Asmar, departing the office of Senator Stephen Conroy.

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Having departed all their formal political gigs, the Asmars then teamed up with the Bill Shorten-Australian Workers Union forces last year to win control of the Victorian branch of the Health Services Union after a brutal battle with forces loyal to Feeney.

Laurence is a veteran member of the ALP’s Socialist Left faction, and his prime objection to Feeney’s nomination in Batman is his history with the previous regime of the HSU, led by Jeff and Kathy Jackson.

“We’ve spent so much time making Darebin HSU-free, I’m not going to be silent about the principle architect of the HSU’s Jackson era, David Feeney, being dropped on the Darebin community,” Laurence told Crikey this morning.

Laurence was mentioned in today’s papers as having nominated for preselection in Batman. He says that isn’t certain, but if he did contest he would be preferencing the preferred Left candidate, Mary Anne Thomas. Thomas works in shareholder relations at NAB, confirming the bank’s Labor proclivities — after all, George Wright quit his well-paid job at NAB to return as Labor’s national secretary last year and the bank even appointed former Treasury secretary Ken Henry to its boards despite Coalition objections.

The first-ever Batman local vote in decades will finally test all the theories about so-called Greek and Lebanese voting blocks within the branches. Ferguson saw off two prominent Greek powerbrokers in 1995 — Jenny Mikakos and Theo Theophanous, but only after national intervention which denied local members a vote. The Age reported at the time:

“A resolution passed at yesterday’s Batman meeting expressed profound regret that there had been no local vote in the preselection and condemned the party’s national secretary, Mr Gary Gray, for threatening national executive intervention.”

Fast forward 18 years and Mikakos is now a Socialist Left MP in the Victorian upper house and is said to control about 150 of the local Batman votes, which will be directed in favour of Thomas.

The next biggest local powerbroker is fellow upper house Labor MP Nazih Elasmar, who is said to control about 200 local votes which are centred around a large Maronite church in Northcote. Elasmar is close to Ferguson, who is backing Feeney, and he is expected to encourage his supporters to do likewise.

However, there has been a long power struggle within the Lebanese community which has pitted the Elasmar group against the Asmars, who have never liked Feeney and particularly didn’t enjoy his attempt to foil their takeover of the HSU last year. There is another HSU election later this year and the Feeney deal with the Shorten-Asmar group is presumed to be that he gets broad support from the Right for Batman in returning for leaving the HSU as a plaything of the Asmars.

Diana Asmar is state secretary of the HSU, and she backed her HSU operations manager, Kimberley Kitching, in the recent bitter Gellibrand preselection battle, which divided the normally tight Shorten-Conroy faction.

If Feeney is to be parachuted into Batman he will have to battle perception issues about not being a local. He has already wisely undertaken to move to Batman from his present abode inside Melbourne’s most exclusive apartment complex overlooking the Fitzroy Gardens in East Melbourne.

And if he prevails over local councillors, the broader Left, the Emily’s List advocates, plus the Asmars, he’s then got to contend with a well-regarded local Green candidate Alex Bhathal, who achieved a strong 23.48% primary vote in 2010, reducing the margin to just 7.86%. If the Liberals decide to preference Bhathal on September 14 as part of is decapitation strategy to wipeout ALP heavyweights, Feeney may well be going through a very messy preselection battle for nothing.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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