Julia Gillard’s departing captain’s pick to replace her in the federal seat of Lalor only attempted to rejoin the Labor Party last week, casting doubt on her eligibility for the safe sinecure just days before nominations close.

School teacher Joanne Ryan confirmed to Crikey this morning that she had applied for special dispensation to override party continuity rules that mandate members must be paid up for 12 months before they throw their hats in the ring. “It was a lapse and an oversight,” she said.

“I had personal issues at the time — my partner had a quadruple bypass and I had just been appointed acting principal of a school.”

Ryan says she attempted to renew her membership online in March but had trouble logging in to the ALP website. She tried again last week and then emailed state secretary Noah Carroll on Friday to apply for dispensation. “All I can say is it’s now part of the lap of the gods tour. We’ll find out if I’m eligible through the nomination process,” she said.

The Age reported this morning that the Werribee resident and Moonee Ponds Primary School principal had first joined the ALP 17 years ago but didn’t mention the lapse, which is believed to have begun in December 2010. In a front-page splash, it said Gillard had written to local ALP members to endorse Ryan, owing to her history as an activist agitating against a toxic waste dump in the electorate in the 1990s. The paper said Ryan had contacted Gillard last Tuesday before deciding on the tilt.

Crikey understands Ryan’s central branch membership application might have not yet been processed. Carroll did not return calls today; however, a senior Labor source told said the oversight would be fixed this week and that the appropriate mechanism was currently being discussed. “No one is going to stand in the way of her contesting the ballot,” the source said.

Dispensation is usually granted by a two-thirds majority of Labor’s 33-member administrative committee when promising ineligible candidates arise — as in the recent cases of Tim Watts in Gellibrand and Mary-Anne Thomas in Batman. However, there appear to be logistical issues this time around. Nominations for Lalor opened today and close on Friday, leaving just four days for the party to intervene. There is no admin meeting scheduled this week, suggesting Labor’s national executive may need to step in.

Other candidates considering running for Lalor include former lobbyist Melissa Horne and Labor Unity member (and partner of blogger Andrew Landeryou) Kimberley Kitching, who is said to have the private support of Education Minister Bill Shorten. However, while the seat is reserved for Unity under the faction’s 2009 stability pact with the Socialist Left, there are no guarantees Kitching will end up nominating. Ryan and Horne are not aligned to any faction.

Ryan told Crikey she was “putting my hand in the air because I believe we need a strong local member and I believe in the community”. The prize is a glittering one — Lalor is Labor’s fifth safest seat in the country, held by a commanding margin of 22.1%. There is serious pressure for a woman to be preselected in Lalor given affirmative action policies that require a woman to run for the party in 40% of winnable seats. Gellibrand, Batman and Scullin have gone to men and Geoff Lake is looking like a sure thing in Hotham.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has promised rank-and-file ballots will be held for Labor seats being vacated by retiring members unless an early election means there isn’t enough time for the full process to run. In Victoria, preselections are decided by a 50% vote of the local membership and a 50% vote of the powerful public office selection committee, which reflects the factional make-up of state conference.

In the wake of Rudd’s deposing of Gillard, the party’s Victorian branch is going through a painful realignment as previously thick-as-thieves “ShortCon” forces aligned to Shorten and Stephen Conroy begin to cleave apart. Many Shorten-loyal state caucus members have been closely liaising with MPs from the shop assistants’ union, leaving Conroy footsoldiers out in the cold. The Shorts also have a solid line into Herald Sun‘s state political editor James Campbell and Daily Telegraph scribe Simon Benson, enabling them to efficiently disseminate their message, which should prove crucial when preselections for the 2014 Victorian election start to ratchet up.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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