A meeting of dominant Labor Unity forces inside the Victorian ALP has suggested its members get a free vote in the looming Hotham preselection, greasing a passage for National Union of Workers candidate Geoff Lake to become Simon Crean’s successor on Capital Hill.

The discussion at a meeting late yesterday could mean that a crucial bloc of 150 Cambodian votes aligned to the local Clayton MP Hong Lim might not be directed to support the Australian Workers Union-backed Lake rival Rosemary Barker in the local ballot, that kicks off in Hotham on Sunday. It would also mean that the Unity caucus would be able to consider Lake’s as well as Barker’s bona fides before deciding where its votes go on Labor’s central preselection panel.

But the decision is being fiercely resisted among elements of the Victorian ALP aligned with the AWU, education minister Bill Shorten and the Transport Workers Union, who have slammed the intervention as a botched suicide bomb attack aimed at freezing them out of preselections for decades to come. It is believed to have been communicated by shop assistants’ union Victorian chief Michael Donovan and would enable Lake to become, in effect, an official Unity candidate.

NUW state secretary Tim Kennedy told Crikey that “the vast majority of Labor Unity are now supportive of Geoff… the only people holding out are those people affiliated with the AWU”.

“We would hope that the AWU would come around to support the best candidate in Hotham which is Geoff,” he said.

If successful, the situation would mirror the previous contested ballot in 2006, when Simon Crean was able to see off Martin Pakula by ‘cracking open’ the area’s Cambodian and Vietnamese members.

The decision could have far-reaching implications for the party’s 2009 stability pact, which divvies up state and federal preselections between Labor Unity and the Socialist Left. In some quarters the Hotham call is being read as a prima facie breach. Shorten forces control about 18% of the Victorian party if unions like the Plumbers are included. It could also have ramifications for the party’s powerful National Executive — if NUW delegate Charlie Donnelly pulled out of the national right and voted with the left, then the body would be split 10-all, with the deciding vote going to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

AWU state secretary Ben Davis and Victorian upper house member (and former state secretary) Cesar Melhem are both believed to be supremely annoyed at the decision and have let their views known in no uncertain terms that they won’t cop a realignment, which would effectively mean Lake’s NUW is dealt back into the deal after four long years in the wilderness.

The new alliance would include the shop assistants’ union, the NUW, the Conroy half of the so-called “ShortCons” and the Socialist Left. The AWU (and presumably the TWU) would then be on the outer, denying Shorten forces any preselection heft forever.

The decision could also have implications for the recipient of David Feeney’s vacant Senate spot, with Shorten forces favouring Health Workers Union general manager Kimberley Kitching, a one-time contender in Lalor and Gellibrand. In the event of a Lake victory, Barker could be selected for the spot, especially if Kitching decides not to run. But there are strong suggestions today that the position will be closely fought.

One federal Labor MP was scathing of the involvement of the member for Corio Richard Marles and Feeney, who he said were carpet-bombing the pact, first mooted in the dying days of 2008.

“These guys are like dumb and dumber. This is a good, solid arrangement and these people have no f-cking idea what they’re doing running around redefining relationships,” they said.

Marles and Feeney were previously supportive of the diplomat Lisa Clutterham’s botched candidacy in Lalor, where she temporarily came up against Kitching (and veteran ABC Radio host Jon Faine) before both withdrew.

Another close observer was more sanguine: “This is just about clowns and morons f-cking everything up and looking around for a life raft.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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