As if a steady drumbeat of near-terminal opinion polling weren’t enough to dampen the festive mood, Bill Shorten is set to end the year grappling with a new outbreak of trouble on his own home front.

Ever since Kelvin Thomson announced last month that he would not seek to extend his two-decade parliamentary career beyond the next election, the battle to succeed him in his traditionally safe seat has unfolded in a manner that could almost be purpose-built to illustrate Labor’s structural problems.

The scene of the disturbance is the electorate of Wills in Melbourne’s inner north, which encompasses the very front line of Labor’s intensifying inner urban war with the Greens — from Brunswick at the southern end through Coburg and Pascoe Vale in the centre, to the still loyal Labor strongholds of Fawkner and Glenroy in the north.

While the Liberals have never been a threat, Wills showed a rebellious streak after its most noteworthy former member, Bob Hawke, retired shortly after losing the prime ministership in December 1991.

The resulting byelection had the Labor candidate defeated by Phil Cleary, a left-wing independent who would eventually be unseated by Thomson in 1996.

However, the electorate has changed a good deal since the time of Cleary’s victories, which reflected a loss of faith among Labor’s blue-collar base after the liberalising economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating era.

Much of the area’s old working class has since passed on, with the void being filled by younger bohemians who are increasingly priced out of the more fashionable environs of Carlton and Fitzroy further to the south.

This phenomenon is poignantly explored by Melbourne singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett in her song Depreston, which she mistakenly named in honour of a suburb in the neighbouring Batman electorate, later to realise that the house-hunting expedition it describes in fact took place in Coburg.

Naturally enough, the newcomers have brought with them a different set of values, and an ever clearer sense of the Greens as their standard bearer within the political domain.

The expanding frontier of the Greens zone was observed by Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders in The Age on the weekend, who wrote of a “cafe by cafe, boutique by boutique” process in which the Italian and Greek migrants of Sydney Road were “making way for Green-inclined hipsters”.

Despite all that, it is certainly still possible to speak, as warriors of the Labor Right have been known to do, of a “latte curtain” that separates the abundant Greens support of the electorate’s south from a proverbial wasteland further north.

The latter area has undergone a demographic upheaval of its own, but it’s been on terms considerably more favourable to Labor, with the old Anglo-Irish, Italian and Greek working class making way for no less Labor-inclined migrants of Arabic and Indian origin.

The big question is whether the Greens’ growing dominance in the south, which reportedly has Labor anticipating defeat in the state seat of Brunswick when the next election rolls around in three years’ time, is sufficient to decide the result.

Retirements of sitting members are particularly dangerous for Labor in these circumstances, having provided the Greens with the occasion for three of their five wins at Labor’s expense in federal and state lower house seats since 2009.

As such, it’s a matter of very great importance to Labor that its new candidate should be saleable enough to cover for the loss of Kelvin Thomson’s personal vote.

Those in the party who are viewing the situation through this lens have calculated that the optimal candidate would be both of ethnic background, thereby appealing directly to the electorate’s centre and north, and a woman, so as to send a suitably progressive message to those who might waver between Labor and the Greens.

To this end, unsuccessful approaches were reportedly made to former SBS newsreader Mary Kostakidis and Victorian Multicultural Commission chair Helen Kapalos.

Another possible contender who fits the bill is Anna-Maria Arabia, a policy director to Bill Shorten with a background in neuroscience, who is of Italian heritage.

However, electoral advantage is far from the only consideration for some of the most influential players in the game, not many of whom got where they are today by passing up opportunities for empire-building.

A case in point would seem to be Senator Stephen Conroy, a key ally of Shorten’s within the factional structure of the Victorian ALP, who has nonetheless found himself in conflict with his leader in preselection turf wars in the past.

Conroy is gunning hard for his former chief of staff, Mehmet Tillem, who briefly held a Senate seat from 2013 to 2014 and now works for Victorian Small Business Minister Philip Dalidakis.

While Tillem offers strong links with the electorate’s substantial Turkish community, his opponents have been keen to paint him as the very kind of factional numbers man whose influence has brought the party to its present low ebb.

Another potentate of the Right, Batman MP David Feeney, was reportedly behind the approach to Kapalos, and the large field of prospective contestants includes one of his staffers, Ben Maxfield.

At least half-a-dozen other candidates have been identified as possible starters in media reports, any one of whom might eventually get up on the back of spoiling tactics, factional compromises, or perhaps even the strength of their own merits.

When the matter is determined at a preselection vote next month, the decision will be split between an internal party electoral college ordered along factional lines, and heavily stacked local branches.

Whichever way they jump, they will need to account for the fact that their actions will be closely observed by an electorate growing increasingly educated and politically engaged, and ever less welded on to Labor.

Peter Fray

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