Stephen Conroy

The jostling for prime positions and speculation after Senator Stephen Conroy’s shock resignation is at fever pitch. Conroy has left a tornado of chaos in his wake, and Bill Shorten will be flying in from Canada straight into faction meetings to tie down loose ends and reassert his dominance.

The vulnerability felt by Conroy’s clearly rocked allies is on display with their anonymous public comments yesterday that “he’s not going anywhere’’ in terms of factional leadership.

While this may be true for his sub-faction grouping, it won’t be true for the broader Victorian Centre Unity leadership. Shorten will need somebody with their ear to the floor in caucus, and that person will almost certainly be Shorten’s decades-long ally, Richard Marles.

It is coincidental that the resignation occurred when Shorten was out of the country. Or was it?

Conroy is in the media saying he apologises for the manner of his resignation and for not warning Socialist Left darling and at the time acting Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek. But he knew what he was doing. It was planned and deliberate. He didn’t tell even tell his staffers, so why would he have told Plibersek?

Speculation is mounting around the two vacancies that will be open from the first of October: deputy leader of the Senate and a replacement senator to fill the casual vacancy. The replacement in both cases will be from the Right.

Opposition Senate Leader Senator Penny Wong is from the Socialist Left. The deputy Senate leader, by convention, is always from the opposition faction to the Senate leader — in this case, Conroy.

The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) is the dominant grouping within the Right nationally, but the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees’ Association (otherwise known as the SDA, or the Shoppies) isn’t far behind. They would ordinarily take the deputy leadership role. However, the AWU doesn’t have anybody of the appropriate seniority in the Senate to fill the role.

As Crikey has previously reported, the SDA now has an awkward relationship with Centre Unity Right grouping in Victoria, having been recently ousted from the faction for causing Premier Daniel Andrews and his government too much grief and embarrassment.

This being said, the only two credible replacements being discussed for opposition deputy leader are Senator Jacinta Collins and Senator Don Farrell. Both are SDA to their bootstraps.

[Why Stephen Conroy departed in such a hurry]

Collins is a previous Senate deputy leader and Senate manager of government business prior to Labor’s defeat in 2013.

She is, however, from the SDA grouping that is on the outer in Victoria, so she could struggle to get support from the nationally important dominant Centre Unity grouping from her state.

Senator Don Farrell, “The Godfather”, comes with his own issues.

Having squeezed his way back into the Senate, he’s marked forever as a “faceless man” and one of the key powerbrokers who was instrumental in removing prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2010.

In the past, by virtue of his iron grip of the SDA and the Labor Party in South Australia, he’s been able to secure a cabinet post in government. This, despite having almost no profile and there being plenty of qualified candidates in the Right.

Shorten won’t be keen to place him in such a senior role given his notorious history during a bruising time for Labor in government.

He’s seen as a relic — both in terms of age and ideology. He’s only back because there is no Right faction without the SDA in South Australia, and he still carries significant sway down south. A chronic pest. Just ask SA Premier Jay Weatherill. Farrell is, shall we say, not the best example of the modern Labor Party image Shorten is trying to foster.

My bet is Collins will be opposition Senate deputy leader.

The casual vacancy looks set to bring up a whole other set of issues. One of the major reforms out of the national conference mid last year was the push towards women making up 50% of state and federal Labor caucuses by 2025. (The often proudly touted affirmative action measures are currently set at 40% and progressively slide up to 50% in 2025.)

There are currently four Labor senators from Victoria. Three are men: Kim Carr and Gavin Marshall from the Socialist Left, and Stephen Conroy from Centre Unity. Senator Jacinta Collins holds the remaining slot.

[Labor branch stacking becomes an arms race, with Stability Pact a possible casualty of war]

My simple reading of this Victorian Labor rule is that for the party to adhere to the 40% rule Conroy’s replacement must be a woman.

Even if by some lawyerly argument it’s not required by the rules, not appointing a woman would be a bad look for Shorten, who prides himself on his championing of affirmative action within the party.

Centre Unity’s Tony Clark is being thrust forward in the media as the presumptive replacement, and I’ve had strong private representations to me regarding his entitlement to this vacancy.

Tony Clark, a blind disability advocate, was the popular and affable Labor candidate for Deakin in the last federal election who was dudded by the woeful results out of Victoria for Labor.

If the position is to be filled by a man, it is hard to see him beating out the likes of Mehmet Tillem, who has longstanding strong connections to senior members of Centre Unity.

Emily’s List Australia has also publicly put the case that the position must be filled by a woman, under the rules.

Further comment has been sought from the Clark camp and Emily’s List regarding their positions on and understanding of party rules.

There are no women candidates I’m aware of at this stage, and none are being publicly touted.

Stay tuned. This will be a moving feast Victorian Labor style. Hopefully bloodless, for a change — but let’s not get greedy.

*Ben Chiefly is a Labor activist and Crikey’s man in the room. Know something he should know? Get in touch or drop Crikey a line (you can stay anonymous

Peter Fray

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