As the clock ticks down on another eventful term of federal Parliament, the major parties are at a point where they would ideally like their preparations for the next election to be well advanced.
However, that’s been greatly complicated in New South Wales and Western Australia by the slow grind of the redistribution process, which needs to be resolved before the parties can be entirely sure of who’s contesting what.
With draft boundaries for both states having been published over the past two months, the parties’ processes are finally moving forward. In doing so, long-simmering tensions are being brought to the boil — particularly in the case of Labor in WA.
The factional landscape inside Labor’s WA branch has been disturbed in recent years by the increasing assertiveness of blue-collar unions — particularly the Maritime Union of Australia, a once-marginal presence that has recently had great success in encouraging its members to join the party.
This had led to talk of a blue-collar bloc that also encompasses the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, with which the MUA has recently begun merger talks, and the Electrical Trades Union.
Its emergence has upset the dominance of a long-standing stability pact between United Voice and the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), respectively the biggest unions of the Left and the Right.
This alliance has become a lot less cohesive since the infamous 2013 Senate preselection, which delivered top position on the ticket to former SDA state secretary Joe Bullock.
Senate incumbent Louise Pratt, who was aligned with United Voice’s main Left faction rival, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, was accordingly shunted to second position and ultimately lost her seat.
Pratt’s defeat reflected the consistently poor electoral performance of Labor in WA in recent years, which has maintained the heat under the factional pressure cooker at a high level as competition for the few remaining seats intensifies.
Two seats have emerged as flashpoints in the current round of preselections, both of them in Perth’s southern suburbs: the coastal electorate of Brand, which Kim Beazley bequeathed to Gary Gray in 2007, and the newly created electorate of Burt, which looms as Labor’s strongest chance for a fourth seat.
From the perspective of the top brass in Canberra, Gary Gray’s corporate connections and resources industry background as a Woodside executive make him a valuable asset, as was demonstrated when he replaced Martin Ferguson as resources minister in early 2013.
However, the Left unions have a rather different view of Gray. The MUA in particular has long-standing grievances going back to his time as minister, and he has predictably found himself lined up against the unions in the debate over the China-Australia free-trade agreement.
Far from smoothing the waters as the latest preselection process rolled around, Gray took the opportunity to refuse to commit himself fully to a pledge requires by state branch of all prospective candidates.
As well as requiring that candidates “obey the directions” of the state secretary while campaigning for office, the pledge binds them to the decisions of state conference — including resolutions opposing uranium mining and coal-seam gas development.
Such pledges are common to all of Labor’s state branches, but the one in Western Australia goes an extra mile in the fealty it demands of federal members, offering no semantic escape clauses about the primacy of caucus solidarity.
As today’s deadline for nominations loomed, the state organisation ruled that Gray’s application form, on which he had blacked out the offending words in the party pledge, was inadmissible.
That seemed to leave the field in Brand clear for rival candidate Adam Woodage, a 28-year-old fly-in fly-out electrician and member of the Electrical Trades Union.
Meanwhile, the new seat of Burt is providing the scene for another factional brush fire, owing to United Voice’s backing of local lawyer and councillor Pierre Yang.
Bill Shorten in particular has been vocal in his wish to see the position go to the Right-aligned Matt Keogh, who was the party’s candidate at the Canning byelection on September 19.
Defeat for Keogh would entail the squandering of the considerable energy Labor put into promoting him during the byelection campaign to voters in the Armadale region, who stand to be transferred to Burt in the redistribution.
Not for the first time, party powerbrokers have been concerned enough about the state branch’s affairs to have taken matters into their own hands.
The national executive this week invoked legal advice that the pledge in its current form is inconsistent with national party rules, and ordered the state branch to accept Gray’s nomination.
Tellingly, the charge has been led by the most powerful figure in the national Left, Anthony Albanese, who dismissed the terms of the pledge as “archaic” and predicted that “common sense” would prevail — if necessary, by the fiat of the national executive.
As for Albanese, he too could soon find himself at the centre of preselection ructions as his own state branch comes to terms with the redistribution proposal published last month.
Among the changes are the transfer of Albanese’s home base of Marrickville to the seat of Barton, which would be transformed from a Liberal-held marginal into a reasonably safe seat for Labor.
Such a move would relieve Albanese of the threat posed to him by the Greens in his existing electorate of Grayndler.
But in the absence of his very strong local personal vote, it would equally mean that Grayndler would stand a very strong chance of falling to the Greens, for which Albanese would have to wear much of the responsibility.