Bill Shorten

The Victorian Labor “stability pact” is wilting under pressure from all sides.

The latest threat to the uneasy alliance, which largely locks out and disempowers rank-and-file party members, is critical to Bill Shorten’s power within his home branch, and his party leadership.

The stability pact is the mechanism that keeps the peace in Victorian Labor. Neither the Socialist Left nor the newly reconstituted Centre Unity Right grouping (ShortCons — that is, allies of Shorten and the now-departed Stephen Conroy — plus the National Union of Workers minus the right-wing Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees’ Association) can rule their branch alone as neither has the state conference numbers. The result is the Socialist Left/Centre Unity pact, which guarantees certain positions to certain factions.

[Victoria’s new senator could be a ticking time bomb for Labor]

When questioned about the latest outbreak of rancour in the Left and Right — related to Shorten’s championing of controversial Right powerbroker Kimberley Kitching to replace the retiring Conroy — the Opposition Leader tried to speak softly and carry a big stick, saying caucus members should resolve any issues internally.

Despite his weak and ineffective push for party reform, Shorten is a king of behind-the-scenes deals and side deals that lose their shine when exposed to light. This is how he’s built his career and power base, in the darkness.

The existential risks to his power base are two-fold.

The issues and concerns within Shorten’s Centre Unity grouping around Kitching’s appointment are already known. They have been joined by an outbreak within the splintering Victorian Socialist Left, triggered by extraordinary on-the-record attacks from a Kim Carr ally, Senator Gavin Marshall, against members of his own faction and their preselection.

Marshall, along with federal MPs Lisa Chesters, Maria Vamvakinou and Carr, formed a sub-factional “Industrial Left” grouping backed by the Victorian Trades Hall to save Carr’s position in shadow cabinet with the backing of the national Right on Shorten’s request. The AMWU is believed to be the major player in this breakaway push.

[What will Conroy’s departure mean for Shorten’s leadership?]

The entire national Left, save for this small sub-grouping and Victorian Trades Hall, wanted Carr booted from shadow cabinet for what they see as his treacherous consistent backing of Shorten against the national Left and the Left’s leading light, Anthony Albanese. Secretive and arcane caucus rules mean that four caucus members combined are entitled to their own shadow cabinet spot.

In public comments Marshall, who was dumped from the deputy presidency of the Senate for backing Carr, has fired shots across the bow of senior backers of Albanese such as Catherine King, Jenny Macklin and, most forcefully, against national Left convener Andrew Giles. Marshall has said he will back a preselection challenge against Giles, who holds the electorate of Scullin. Giles told Fairfax:

“Am I organising a contest in Scullin? Yes, I am.”

“He lied about the strategy to knock off Kim [Carr], there is disenchantment with Andrew and I believe he will face a preselection challenger. No one has an entitlement to their position, the purpose of the rules is that members are free to challenge for these positions.”

It’s an indulgent, unfathomable outburst given the federal election has only just occurred and preselections are the last thing on members’ minds.

The claims that Marshall will be mounting aggressive challenges are even more extraordinary given any candidate seeking to roll sitting MPs would need 80%-plus support of rank-and-file members to outweigh the 100-member state conference-elected Public Office Selection Committee (POSC).

[Why Shorten pushed for Kimberley Kitching — and why it could blow up in his face]

This 80% is starting to look increasingly shaky for Shorten and likely to splinter as Conroy/Transport Workers Union-aligned elements within Centre Unity express private concerns over Kitching’s selection and Victorian Socialist Left unions and the “Industrial Left” are at odds with the majority of Victorian Socialist Left MPs and senators.

Perhaps Marshall envisages a weakening of stability pact control of the POSC?

There are reasons for the pact and if these divisions continue to widen expect to see why the flawed structure was implemented. The fallout of its dissolution would be catastrophic.

Victorian Labor is a powerful branch and splits on the Victorian Left and Victorian Right could potentially impact on state and federal preselections in Victoria and Victorian Labor positions, as well the state Andrews government and even the federal leadership of the party and national conference control.

Victoria is, once again, the largest headache for the man who has gained most from using its tangled web to his advantage to get to where he is today, and help his mates along the way.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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