In a few mad hours this morning, South Australian Labor’s electoral hopes have been damaged irreversibly.

Party faithful went to bed last night harbouring outside hopes of an election victory in the SA election on March 15. Today, they are in despair.

Factional discipline — essential to the ascendancy of incumbent Labor Premier Jay Weatherill from the minority Left — has collapsed in such spectacular fashion that hardened party warriors are shell-shocked and demoralised.

In short, this morning’s machinations have destroyed state Labor as surely as that tap on the shoulder to Kevin Rudd way back in 2010 destroyed federal Labor.

To recap, Weatherill today threatened to resign the premiership if Right faction boss Don Farrell — a man inextricably linked to the Rudd-Gillard in-fighting — gained preselection for the state seat of Napier, ahead of the March poll. The seat was offered to Farrell by its incumbent, cabinet minister Michael O’Brien, with a preselection process to happen next week.

Farrell lost his Senate seat at the 2013 federal election after he allowed then-Left minister Penny Wong to take the number one spot in the face of public outrage that the well-regarded Wong wasn’t in top spot. The Right faction was fuming. Payback was inevitable, but no one predicted it would be so damaging.

Today, in a few moments of extraordinary radio on ABC 891 Adelaide, Weatherill threatened to resign if Farrell were preselected, given Farrell’s connection to federal instability and the threat of uncertainty after the election. The Premier said Farrell was associated with divisions in the federal party that “destroyed” the Rudd Labor government and he did not want this in SA. When asked if he would resign if Farrell were preselected, Weatherill said: “I would have to reflect on that, of course.”

Farrell, hanging on the line and listening, seemed taken aback but vowed to keep going with his plan to seek preselection.

A few hours later Farrell — no doubt after hearing from wise heads in Labor that the party was facing electoral catastrophe — withdrew his bid for preselection.

“Politics is the art of the possible,” he said. “Jay has made it very clear that he doesn’t support me in this. I do support the Labor Party, I do support Jay. I don’t want to see what’s happening federally happen in SA. I think the best thing I can do to support stability … is for me to withdraw my candidacy.”

Farrell said his political career would end when his Senate term ends on June 30. “When my term finishes I shall play no further part in public life, either state or federal … I’ve made my decision, I’ve made my decision to withdraw, and I have no regrets about that.”

Farrell backing down was the best case scenario for Labor but, even so, Weatherill and Labor are fatally wounded. Adelaide University head of politics Clem Macintyre described the Weatherill ultimatum as “gobsmacking”.

“It’s extraordinary: a declaration of war within Labor that sounds pretty uncompromising,” he told InDaily. “It [the state election] is no longer in doubt.”

Labor was already facing an uphill battle. Airing this kind of disunity and factional game-playing six weeks from the poll is electoral poison. The Liberals will now be able to link state Labor with the most brand-damaging episode in the party’s history — the Rudd/Gillard debacle.

The blame game is happening behind closed doors. Factional hatreds, mostly dormant since the Right reluctantly handed the premiership to the Left, are now at boiling point. Farrell’s supporters are white-hot over the second humiliation of their leader in the space of six months.

On the other hand, O’Brien and Farrell are facing fury from some within their own faction. There are some that say Weatherill should have calmly accepted Farrell and moved on. Maybe. But even if he did, Farrell’s close identification with the disastrous Rudd-Gillard years would likely have been fatal to Labor’s re-election hopes. That Farrell and his supporters couldn’t see this from the start is baffling. And they’ve had plenty of time — Farrell has been mulling this over since last September’s election.

Beyond all the machinations and ifs and buts, one overarching question remains: how could Labor do this to itself after the years of pain inflicted by the federal disaster? It is impossible to comprehend.

The shredders will be starting this weekend.

* This story was originally published at InDaily

Peter Fray

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