When ALP reformers invited outside lawyers to sit as a final court of appeal on personal rivalries and factional squabbles, there was a mixed response from the membership of New South Wales Labor.

Most welcomed the legal panel as a bold step towards “cleaning up” the party in the wake of corruption scandals involving former cabinet ministers Eddie Obeid, Ian Macdonald, Tony Kelly and Eric Roozendaal. But others felt that the party had surrendered a preciously guarded right to administer itself.

The first major appeal to the party’s Independent Review Tribunal, chaired by former Supreme Court judge Greg James AM QC, has created an inevitable controversy.

Other members of James’ tribunal were Phillip Boulten SC, ex-president of the NSW Bar Association, solicitor Kirk Mckenzie, of Macquarie Street firm Haylen Mckenzie, and Carmel Tebbutt, MP for Marrickville and wife of Anthony Albanese, federal leader of the “hard Left” faction.

Incidentally, Mckenzie is president of the ALP’s North Sydney branch and achieved minor notoriety with a New Matilda article on the eve of the 2011 state election entitled: “NSW Labor has a done a great job”.

History records that one month later the ALP suffered its worst defeat in 100 years and was reduced to 19 seats in Parliament.

It is also interesting to note the name of the law firm Haylen Mckenzie, because Jo Haylen, a member of the Haylen dynasty, is Labor’s candidate for Summer Hill, formerly Marrickville, where the retiring MP is Tebbutt.

The party’s newly reformed machinery came into play when warfare erupted between Auburn’s sitting MP, Barbara Perry, and her longtime rival, Councillor Hicham Zraika, a former Auburn mayor.

She complained to the party’s Internal Appeals Tribunal that Zraika was allegedly involved in widespread branch-stacking.

It coincided with the resignation of NSW opposition leader John “Robbo” Robertson last December and the unopposed succession of Luke Foley, the Leader of the Opposition in the NSW upper house.

Perry’s Western Sydney seat quickly emerged as the vehicle to provide Foley with a passage to the lower house and thereby legitimise his new status as Opposition Leader.

However, this meant some clever footwork: 1) ending the disciplinary proceedings against Zraika on a satisfactory note; 2) giving him the consolation prize of a seat in the NSW upper house; and 3) persuading Perry to vacate her seat to clear the way for Foley.

In due course, the tribunal found insufficient evidence to make a finding against Zraika, thus clearing his passage to the upper house in a winnable place on the party’s ticket.

However, the outcome enraged Perry, who promptly launched an appeal to Greg James’ appeals tribunal. She went armed with additional information including membership records and branch minutes that were not shown to the review tribunal.

There were cheers and screams of horror when the four-member panel found Zraika had engaged in “unworthy conduct” and suspended him from party membership for six months.

This means he won’t be on the ALP’s upper-house ticket and he won’t be sinking into the upper house’s red leather benches on $149,541 a year for the next eight years.

The party’s administrative committee now has the task of rearranging the order of candidates on the upper-house ticket and deciding who will be given winnable places and who won’t.

Zraika’s six-month suspension is a godsend for Foley. It removes any taint of branch-stacking from the ALP — while it is rife in the Liberal Party — and allows him to claim he is leading a “reformed” party.

It also allows him to promote another MLC, Walt Secord, as the next leader of the opposition in the upper house on an annual salary of $200,385.

Secord, former press secretary to Bob Carr and subeditor on the Australian Jewish News, is Foley’s link to Rupert Murdoch’s media and especially The Daily Telegraph.

Meanwhile, Foley’s main focus is winning Auburn, a task just made more difficult by the entry of former ALP member and Parramatta councillor Paul Garrard, into the race as an independent candidate. More than ever, Foley will be counting on the support of forces loyal to Perry and Zraika. But will they be inclined to deliver?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey