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Jul 19, 2013

Replacing Crean: a guide to the ALP’s Hotham preselection

The ALP will soon pick a candidate to replace Simon Crean in the Victorian electorate of Hotham. We take a detailed look at who's likely to win.

Geoff Lake Rosemary Barker

Monash councillor and Minter Ellison eagle Geoff Lake has launched an unprecedented 11th-hour bid to convince ALP members to pick him as Simon Crean’s successor in the Melbourne seat of Hotham as the party’s rank-and-file prepare to cast judgement on his federal political ambitions on Sunday.

But it seems his rival, Rosemary Barker, is on track to win a clear majority.

Lake, 33, will campaign around the clock until local voting closes on Monday night to snatch victory from Barker, a 53-year-old disability worker who hails from the Stephen Conroy portion of the Labor Unity faction gifted the seat under a 2009 “stability pact” with the Socialist Left (more on Conroy later).

Lake’s National Union Workers faction is frozen out of that agreement. And the duo are also at odds on policy. At the ALP state conference in April, Barker gave a speech suggesting grassroots members shouldn’t be tasked with electing the party leader, a view that chafes with Kevin Rudd’s recent pledge on internal reform.

To win, Lake would need to convince a majority of the federal electorate area’s 497 eligible party members to turn up and support him to counterbalance a pro-Barker majority on Labor’s central public office selection committee. Under Victorian ALP rules, preselections are decided 50% by the local ballot and 50% by the central panel, scheduled to meet on Tuesday night. Crikey understands that Barker is claiming 53% of the local vote and has between 82% and 92% on the central panel.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Lake needs to win the local vote to stand a chance. But his mandate is likely to be drawn not from the margin of victory per se, but from the proportion of active members he manages to win over to his camp. Members in Hotham are split between 250 Cambodian and Vietnamese stacks notionally loyal to Barker on the one hand, and 245 rank-and-filers on the other. In short, Barker only needs to pick up 20% of the genuine rank-and-file vote — those not a stack or a formal member of a faction — to triumph in the local ballot. Turnout in preselections is usually around 90%.

Hotham, centred on the south-eastern suburbs of Cheltenham, Springvale South and Bentleigh East, contains seven branches. Eligible members have to be on the electoral roll, a continuous party member for 12 months, and their AEC address has to match the member’s ALP address.

Victorian Clayton MP Hong Lim established the Clarinda branch 25 years ago after emigrating from Cambodia. Once thought to be united, the 130 eligible members are now split roughly 50-50 between Lim and those loyal to his brother-in-law, Dandenong councillor Youhorn Chea. Lake has been assisted by a letter of endorsement sent by Lim this week from a Buddhist retreat in the Polish capital Warsaw, meaning he stands a good chance of building on a core of about 30 local Buddhists. But, citing a previous commitment to Barker, Chea has also been campaigning hard and there is every chance that his strong presence on the ground will mean a number of Lim votes will stray. Unless Lake holds 40% of the total Cambodian vote, it’s all over.

On the other side of the ledger, the Clayton South branch contains about 90 members, the majority supportive of Lake. It’s the most active branch in the electorate and probably the most thriving in the state outside of the inner city. Other than a few remnant Unity stacks (not many) it is full of active members who decide independently how they will vote. Barker is a member of the branch (she attends every meeting) but isn’t on the executive — she could expect to pick up about 20 votes from supporters. It contains 25 members loyal to pro-Lake Dandenong Councillor Meang Heang Tak. The “Networkers”, shorthand for Lake’s faction, are supported by branch stalwart Amy Duncan, technically an independent but close to the NUW.

At the 170-strong Hotham West branch, Barker’s husband Garth Head is secretary. It’s a bilingual branch with about 110 eligible members comprising Vietnamese, Anglo, English, Latin Americans and some long serving Socialist Left members. There are roughly 100 Vietnamese members in Hotham (including about 10 who are in other branches and 25 hard-core, loyal Head-Barker votes). It’s the fastest growing branch in the Victorian ALP — about 110 Vietnamese members have joined up over the past three years, including 40 that joined a few days after the July 12 cut-off for eligibility for voting in the preselection. Critics say meetings are conducted in Vietnamese with new members typically looking nervous during inductions — critics claim new members often don’t include contact details on membership forms so it’s difficult for outsiders to call or email to canvass for their votes. It is claimed that some of these new members might not know they’re members of the party and might not even vote Labor, as polling in the south-east is showing a substantial loss of ALP support in the community. On Sunday they will get picked up by Dandenong councillor Loi Truong in a spluttering minibus, and will either have their issued ballot paper taken from them or will have someone “assisting them to vote”.

The 23-member Socialist Left stronghold at Springvale branch is leaning Barker, with some resentment apparently still lingering from the NUW-backed Matt Carrick’s bid to topple sitting MP Alan Griffin for preselection in Bruce in 2006.

The 50-member Moorabbin branch was started by south-eastern suburbs NUW identity Nick Staikos. But there are reports of some leakage to Barker with about 35 votes in the Lake column.

A small, 25-member Cheltenham branch is primarily backing Lake: he can expect at least 20 votes here, his home branch.

The 50-member Hughesdale branch is solid Lake with only a bit of leakage to Barker expected.

In summary, going into the ballot, Barker starts with 175 votes before she lifts a finger. Stripping out the stacks, she is left with 25 hard core LU types, 20-40 institutional SL votes and a handful of others. Lake, with a much smaller base, has to convert Hong Lim’s support to snag 40% of the Clarinda Cambodian vote to get into a position where he can edge out Barker. However, on paper, and with the SL’s institutional backing, it is hard to see how Barker will not win a clear majority.If Barker wins the local ballot convincingly, she has done well in winning over rank-and-file voters. If Lake wins, he has almost scooped the pool with genuine members. Unity forces concede that a Lake win would make her continuing candidacy untenable and she would be under pressure to withdraw before the ballot goes to the POSC. This is the only real path to a Lake victory.

Now to the 100-member POSC, which reflects the factional make-up of state conference. On paper, it appears to be tilting strongly towards Barker. But there are some important caveats. Labor Unity met last night, with pro-Barker forces failing to convince the wider group to bind centrally around her. Unity, or at least the majority of it, are waiting to see the result of the local ballot — they know that if Barker loses she will struggle to be installed. A defeated Lake may be able to claim support based on the number of stacks in Barker’s pile, but his argument will be severely weakened. Unity powerbrokers are said to be mulling a third option — a Barker withdrawal to nominate for David Feeney’s vacant Senate spot and the suddenly more winnable number three position on the Victorian ticket (the positions are combined).

The panel is divided into seven blocs. The Socialist Left and “friends” have 37 votes — the SL are bound to support Labor Unity’s candidate under the stability pact.

The ShortCons part of Labor Unity (named after Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy) has 24 votes (made up of 10 Shorts — mostly Australian Workers Union delegates, four Plumbers loyal to the Shorts, and 10 Cons). They are the single biggest part of LU and are bitterly divided over the candidates backed by the Shorts for Hotham and possibly the Senate vacancy.

The Shop Assistants’ Union, also part of Labor Unity, has 21 votes — nine from the Union side and 12 from branches supportive of the union. But, as Crikey revealed on Wednesday, the SDA has won support for a  “free local vote” on the matter, effectively permitting Lim’s letter to members in support of Lake and freeing the Unity caucus from the shackles of a single candidate. Still, the SDA are a minority within Labor Unity and would need to split the ShortCons to anoint Lake. With the Cons running dead, this could still be a possibility.

The SDA’s broader goal is to prevent Health Workers Union manager Kimberley Kitching from obtaining the vacant Senate spot. They also want Barker to withdraw from Hotham.

The unpredictable Ferguson Left has five votes, but usually agrees to support the bigger right block.

Lake’s National Union of Workers has eight votes, which will go to Lake.

The loose Union and Community Alliance comprising the Maritime Union of Australia, Christine Couzens, the Postal Workers and the United Fire Fighters Union, has two. UFU state secretary Peter Marshall told Crikey he was unsure where his votes would go.

The Independents faction in the Eric Dearricott sphere hold one vote. While usually supportive of the Left, they are likely to back Lake.

Overall, Lake commands an extremely small rump on the POSC with between nine and 11 votes. However, if he can somehow convince the SDA to split from Labor Unity he might be able to get to 30 votes — only enough to override the smallest vote for Barker.

More broadly, an SDA defection would have all sorts of ramifications for Labor Unity, possibly collapsing the alliance and exploding the broader stability pact and the Victorian party. As Crikey detailed earlier this week, an alternative pact could then be formed comprising the SDA, the SL and the NUW for a total of 68 POSC votes. In that scenario Bill Shorten and the probably-retiring Stephen Conroy would see the base they’ve carefully cultivated for the last two decades disappear forever.

Despite Barker and Garth Head’s loyalty over the years (and despite Conroy signing her nomination form), the former communications minister has been running dead, annoyed about Shorten’s last-minute switch to Kevin Rudd in the federal leadership ballot. If Conroy — who has previously split with Shorten over Gellibrand and Lalor — backs Lake, his 10 votes could also defect to the new alliance, leaving the AWU and Shorten out in the cold.

For now all eyes are focused on Hotham’s looming date with ballot paper destiny. And on the ALP’s Senate nominations inbox at 5pm today.

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