Doomed Labor Senator David Feeney’s hopes for preselection in the federal seat of Batman could lie with local right-wing powerbroker David Asmar, the subject of fierce lobbying for his loyalties in recent days as the battle for the seemingly safe Labor seat ratchets up.
Feeney, the frozen-out former Melbourne University Student Union office bearer who was expecting a Nova Peris-style Prime Ministerial parachute into Martin Ferguson’s seat before the Left arced up last week, is facing down the Socialist Left-supported Plan International executive (and former Lynne Kosky staffer) Mary-Anne Thomas.
Both sides of the battle are said to have been pestering Asmar, the Labor Unity-aligned former Stephen Conroy staffer, to back their respective camps. An exclusive branch breakdown below reveals that Asmar wields substantial influence inside the northern suburbs fiefdom.
It’s the first open Batman preselection contest since former deputy PM Brian Howe’s victory over Horrie Garrick in 1977, and both the Left and the Right are campaigning hard to win support from the 962 local ALP members spread across 11 branches.
Labor preselections are decided by a vote of the local members, worth half of the final total, and the central public office selection committee (POSC), worth the other half — a meeting tonight of the state administrative committee will decide on the timetable for the preselection, with strong suggestions the vote will be done and dusted by June 23, giving the successful candidate plenty of time to campaign before September 14.
Admin will also decide whether to use the “old” or new POSC which is currently being re-elected. The rough split on the old panel is 40% Socialist Left and “friends”, 40% Labor Unity (including the Shop Assistants Union) with the rest National Union of Workers and the Independent Ferguson/Michael O’Connor Left. It is very hard to pick how the Independents will vote (certainly not at Martin Ferguson’s direction), and the NUW vote is also up in the air.
The breakdown means that Thomas would need to secure a maximum of 60%, and at least 40% of the local vote to have a chance.
On the numbers below she is in with a very good shot. Feeney’s problem is soft support from within the Right, despite public displays of affection from senior Right-aligned Labor Unity MPs Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy.
The cosmopolitan Batman federal electorate area is traditionally a Left area, with previous MPs Brian Howe (who has backed Thomas), Ferguson’s Left roots, and a strong Greens vote. And internal Labor pressure group Emily’s List has been pushing hard for a woman to satisfy Labor’s 40% affirmative action policy, with the recent preselection of Tim Watts in Gellibrand cranking up support for a progressive woman.
Thomas is said to have picked up local followers since announcing her candidacy via Twitter on Sunday morning, but understanding the branch dynamics in one of Melbourne’s most multicultural areas is a complex exercise, as is the impact of where various sons, daughters, husbands and wives of the players fit in.
Crikey has spoken to ALP insiders and understands that this how the branch numbers break down across Batman, ranked according to size of membership. Both sides will be studying the form guide hard as their lobbying efforts intensify over the next 7 days.
High Street Branch: 192 members. A largely Arabic-speaking branch where power is shared between two competing Lebanese groups. The numerically superior faction is led by upper house state MP Nazih Elasmar and Marlene Kairouz, a Batman local who is now a state MP on the other side of town representing Kororoit in the western suburbs. Former Darebin mayor-turned-newly installed Health Services Union Victorian secretary Diana Asmar, and her husband David Asmar, a former staffer to Senator Stephen Conroy, are both members of this branch but only influence about 30 members. The Elasmar-Kairouz crew will strongly support fellow Catholic David Feeney, but the Asmars are believed to be opposing David Feeney, who resisted their attempt to wrest control of the HSU from its old associates in the Jeff and Kathy Jackson clique.
Preston: 170 members. The branch controlled by former state member for Preston Michael Leighton and the electorate officer he handed the seat over to, Robin Scott. This branch is mainly SDA Catholic Right and also has many ex-HSU types. It is majority Anglo but features about 60 Chinese members and another group that is regarded as Kairouz-linked.
Batman North: 158 members. A largely Greek speaking branch concentrated around Northcote that is influenced by the various Greek Labor figures led by upper house state MP Jenny Mikakos, along with the federal nember for Calwell, Maria Vamvakinou and former state MP Theo Theophanous, who started with the Left before defecting to the Right. Former Darebin mayor and the only surviving Labor Right figure on the council, Steven Tsitas, is also a player. This is a mature branch first built up by Theophanous with the assistance of Michael Michalis (husband of Maria Vamvakinou) and then later enlarged by some more Mikakos recruiting in the 1990s. It will largely vote with the Left for Mary-Anne Thomas.
Northcote: 91 members. A mainly Anglo branch that used to be 200 members-strong until the Right won control and many of the more Left wing elements defected to the Greens. Strangely, while the Batman voter roll is only 44% female, this branch has the highest percentage of male members. Despite this oddity, Northcote is expected to strongly support Thomas. How hard will Senator Conroy and Bill Shorten push this branch to back Feeney given the past internal battles within the Right?
Central: 77 members. A largely Anglo branch where Thomas is a member because it accumulates all new members until they are assigned to a geographically based branch. Includes a number of union officials who rarely attend branch meetings in Darebin.
Darebin: 58 members. Mainly Greek with some Lebanese influence. This branch was sponsored by Martin Ferguson as a vehicle for Cr Steven Tsitas’ crew, and Alison Donahue, an electorate officer for Nazih Elasmar. Elasmar is said to have promised Tsitas the seat on February 14, but the councillor has now dubbed that a “Valentine’s Day Massacre” after the so-called “Nazih Delegrates Group’s” (feat. Rick Garrotti) support for Feeney became clear. Tsitas needed some new turf to work in when banished from the electorate office of Michael Leighton, after trying to knock him off. Fiona Richardson, the state MP for Northcote and former factional convenor for the Right, employs the wife of Cr Tsitas; however he is not at all beholden to her influence.
Preston West: 57 members. This was previously a Kurdish-speaking left-wing branch but was reborn with former Conroy staffer David Asmar as secretary. Largely Arab-speaking to this day and could be influenced to vote either way depending on what deals are on offer. The latest jungle drum is that the Asmars have committed to bring out their numbers for the Left against Feeney, possibly in exchange for Left union support to allow the HSU to re-affiliate with the ALP.
Reservoir: 57 members. A small English-speaking branch split across various factional groups.
Thornbury/Croxton: 49 members. Despite Italians being the largest ethnic group in Batman, their ALP membership and representation has been dismal in recent years. The faltering Croxton Italian-speaking branch was rolled into Thornbury last year. Ferguson usually left the servicing of this branch to his electorate officers, but he has been hitting the phones hard in recent days urging a vote for Feeney.
Northcote East: 47 members. This largely Greek-speaking branch used to be the centre of Theo Theophanous’ power back in 1995 when he withdrew from the Batman preselection battle against Martin Ferguson after Brian Howe retired. It is now a shadow of its former self. Former Theophanous footsolider Andy Mylonas is in this branch, and Nazih Elasmar has hired his daughter as an electorate officer. Theophanous and his wife, Rita, are still strong in this branch and will go with the Feeney/SDA camp.
Clifton Hill: 39 members. The redistribution has caused Adam Bandt’s two-party preferred in Melbourne to deteriorate by 0.6%, but the 2010 Greens candidate in Batman, Alex Bhathal, starts 0.9% better off in 2013, and it is the heavily Green-tinged Clifton Hill that is the biggest factor driving both changes. The modest size of this Labor branch in a highly educated, affluent and Anglo inner-city area illustrates the bleeding Labor has done to the Greens. Will vote freely but expected to favour Thomas.