There has been a dramatic changing of the guard in NSW Labor’s majority right-wing faction, Centre Unity, with upper house newcomer Courtney Houssos replacing Wollongong MP Noreen Hay as parliamentary convener.

The official reason for Hay’s decision to stand down from the faction’s leadership is that it created unnecessary tensions with her other role as opposition whip (salary $180,000 a year).

However, in the corridors of “the Bear Pit”, a somewhat different version is being canvassed, with state general secretary Jamie Clements named in a key role.

Houssos, nee Roche, was the NSW ALP’s country organiser for nine years and its first female organiser.

Because the transition from party official to a parliamentary career is a well-trodden path, there were no surprises when Clements secured her a winning spot on the party’s upper house ticket at the March 28 election this year.

However, with less than three months’ experience in her $150,000-a-year job in Macquarie Street, Houssos has been catapulted into the leadership of Centre Unity’s parliamentary faction. The novice from ALP head office in Sussex Street has suddenly become a major political player with potent influence.

Her promotion brings Centre Unity MPs under Sussex Street’s closer supervision and restores the situation that existed under earlier general secretaries Graham “Richo” Richardson and John Della Bosca when they ruled the faction.

Her promotion is significant because the faction’s leadership has unfinished business to attend to. Some members remain bitter about the elevation of the left’s Nathan Rees to the premiership in 2008 and are unhappy with current leadership of Luke Foley, former head of the “hard left”.

They are suspicious of Foley’s shift to the centre and his claim to be following in the tradition of former premiers Bill McKell, Neville Wran and Bob Carr. Not persuaded by his political conversion, they are determined to return the party to Centre Unity control by the time of the March 2019 election.

Their favoured leadership candidate is the newly elected MP for Kogarah Chris Minns, a former ALP assistant general secretary, Hurstville councillor and deputy mayor who worked on the staff of former cabinet ministers Carl Scully and John Robertson. A qualified part-time fireman, Minns holds a BA as well as a master’s in public policy from Princeton University.

In his inaugural speech, the 35-year-old MP urged Parliament to mandate teaching of Mandarin to schoolchildren from kindergarten to year 12 and called for a reduction in union power in the ALP.

Minns, an Australian Workers Union member, told MPs: “In the long term, a more balanced split in the make-up of Labor will be both better for the party and for our hard-working trade unions.”

Referring to his family’s devotion to the Labor cause, Minns said: “The Liberal Party is a party, but Labor is a tribe.”

He paid tribute to the campaign team in the Kogarah electorate, singling out George Houssos, husband of Courtney Houssos. Incidentally, in her inaugural speech on the same day as Minns’ speech, Courtney described her partner as “the best marginal campaigner in the country, with no exception”.

Jamie Clements is the godfather of Minns’ older son, Joe, while the godfather to his other son, Nicky, is Ben Franklin, newly elected Nationals MP in the Legislative Council and a former Liberal Party staffer.

Minns has vigorously played down any suggestion that he is a future leadership contender. He has learnt a valuable lesson from his former boss Carl Scully, who prematurely flagged ambitions to succeed Carr as premier in 2005 only to crash to earth in a spectacular flame-out.

Nevertheless, Minns’ very presence on the backbench will unnerve Foley, whose leadership is dependent on an uneasy marriage of convenience between the left and right factions.

Foley was given the leadership just three months before the March state election because then-leader Robertson was struggling to connect with voters.

Like Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s second coming in 2013, Foley’s ascension was a desperate throw of the dice to attract more votes than his struggling predecessor. There is no way of knowing positively that the leadership change helped Labor win 13 extra seats, but most commentators assume that it did.

Meanwhile, the party has remade itself. General secretary Clements, party organiser Houssos and assistant secretary Minns worked together in Sussex Street, talked together and planned together. Today, they constitute a formidable sub-tribe within the main tribe.

If you catch Foley looking anxiously over his shoulder, now you know why.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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