Don Farrell’s potential return to the Senate threatens one of Labor’s leading female senators just after the party implemented reform to boost the number of women elected to Parliament.

The ABC reported this morning that the former secretary of the shoppies’ union would be putting his hand up for preselection in South Australia for Labor at the upcoming election. Farrell lost his Senate seat to Family First Senator Bob Day after agreeing to relinquish the top ticket spot in the 2013 election to Labor’s leader in the Senate, Penny Wong. After a failed bid to enter South Australian Parliament, Farrell, known in SA as The Godfather, would likely get the second spot on Labor’s ticket if he wins preselection.

Wong will be the top of the Senate ticket, as Labor has decided those in leadership positions will be top of the party’s tickets. Wong herself is the campaign spokesperson for Labor, and will be spending most of the campaign in Canberra.

Farrell is a major Labor powerbroker in South Australia. A former secretary of the shop assistant’s union — the key force in SA Labor Right politics — he was one of the key “faceless men” who helped install Julia Gillard into the Lodge in 2010. Gillard told Farrell in 2014 there was a life after politics, but the powerful South Australian Labor figure hasn’t appeared to want to stay retired since leaving the Senate. He told South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill he intended to nominate for the safe state seat of Napier in 2014, which was being vacated by long-time ally Michal O’Brien at the time. But Weatherill, who is from the Labor Left, resisted and said he would resign if Farrell were preselected. Within three hours, Farrell dropped out.

But this time, his path appears clear. Those Crikey spoke to for this story viewed Farrell’s return as a done deal. They also endorsed the ticket order given by the ABC, which would put Senator Anne McEwen fourth on the ticket.

Before the double dissolution election was called, Labor Senator Alex Gallacher was preselected for South Australia’s first spot, followed by McEwen in the second spot. But the double dissolution means that Wong, who was re-elected just three years ago, now has to re-contest her seat and has been given the top spot, bumping Gallacher and McEwen down to second and third, respectively. If Farrell is dropped into the No. 2 spot, that could push McEwen out of Parliament with a tight race in South Australia brewing between Labor, the Coalition, Greens, Nick Xenophon candidates and Family First.

Since 2014, Farrell has spent part of his time in the United Kingdom with family, and the rest in SA’s Clare Valley, where he’s founded a winery. Farrell Wines sits on SA’s riesling trail, and it’s said the riesling is its best offering. The 2014 riesling was launched by Gillard last year, and is the wine of choice in SA Labor Right ranks.

McEwen served as chief government whip in the Senate during the Gillard government and has served as chief opposition whip since the last election. She is a national co-convenor for Emily’s List, Labor’s group for supporting getting progressive Labor women into Parliament. At Labor’s national conference last year Emily’s List succeeded in changing Labor’s affirmative action rule to ensure that by 2025, half of Labor’s elected representatives will be women. One Labor source said that it was fairly ironic for an Emily’s List co-convenor to be bumped for a man.

“She’s a bloody trooper … she doesn’t need the limelight at all, is just a loyal servant, and has led Emily’s List through all those excellent reforms,” said the Labor source. But on the question of promoting women in winnable spots, another source pointed out that Emily’s List only supports left-wing or “progressive” women, which means it wasn’t a force in electing figures like the Labor Right’s Kate Ellis in South Australia.

South Australia’s state executive is meeting this afternoon to decide on the full ticket, with a national executive meeting on scheduled for tomorrow. A spokesperson for the Labor Party did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

The ABC has also reported that on the Liberal side, conservative firebrand Cory Bernardi has been bumped from the top spot of his ticket for Education Minister Simon Birmingham, with assistant Agriculture Minister Anne Ruston in third place.

For the Greens, recently elected Senator Robert Simms is second on the Greens ticket, and has said that it will be a “Rob vs Bob” election, with him fighting for a Senate spot against Family First Senator Bob Day.

On Friday morning, the High Court will hand down its decision in Day’s challenge of the new Senate voting reform law.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey