Feel the electricity, Bill: Shorten’s dicey dealings with the new warlords

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When, in late 2017, it was revealed in the press that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten had sat down with Adem Somyurek, the leader of Labor’s right-wing Moderates faction, there was widespread dismay and bewilderment.

Sources within the Mods have been claiming that the Shorten sit-down marked the turning point: the moment at which the purported new Centre Unity-Industrial Left (CU-IL) alliance got on the road to becoming the dominant alliance.

That is disputed by supporters of the Stability Pact, but they are angered that Shorten’s involvement has made it possible for the claim to be stated.

“Why would Bill do that?” one stalwart of the Stability Pact said he asked at the time. “He’s supposed to have renounced faction crap in the leadership.”

“He was conned into the meeting,” said another.

The sit-down took place between Shorten, Somyurek, with Shorten’s courtier Andrew Landeryou in attendance, and Plumbers’ Union Victorian head Earl Setches along for the ride. 

“I think He thought it was a genuine unity meeting, not something dodged-up,” our inner-city informant Mr Brunswick offered. Others disagreed.

“Conned? Nah, a leader doesn’t go to a meeting if he doesn’t know what it’s for,” said a source close to Victorian Trades Hall. When asked if the “con” of “the Short” might have been perpetrated by those close to him, the reply was “well no one’s been sacked for it. Nah, Bill knew what he was doing.”

Still, what he was doing was risky enough. Labor has spent years dispelling the image of internal instability and infighting — the sole factor that tipped the 2013 election Tony Abbott’s way.

For a decade, the Australian public has been residually tilted towards Labor: Abbott only won because he promised to maintain Labor’s program. Since the breaking of that promise, with the 2014 failed budget, the Coalition has been behind in the polls. Shorten, a creature of the Victorian factions if ever there was one, has managed to slake off that background, only in the last year or so. Meetings with subfaction players throws him right back in it.

But Shorten has no choice. As with any faction-based Labor leader, the actual election, against the actual Coalition, is a distant battle, far in the future. First, last and always is the struggle to maintain party control. Bill Shorten may not be fighting for his life — yet — but he’s fighting to not be fighting for his life.

Stuff got real for Shorten last year, with the sudden resignation of senator Stephen Conroy, and the sudden realisation that David Feeney was dead in the water, from section 44 troubles. Feeney’s factional power was long gone.

Once commanding the respect of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) leadership, his blundering performance in the 2016 election – forgetting a house he owned, stuffing up basic policy interviews – had given everyone a chance to bypass a man much loathed. How loathed? Well, his enemies had placed a fake death notice for him in the Herald Sun in 2012, when his “Taliban” alliance had finally been sidelined by the Stability Pact. Feeney’s sidelining made it all the more possible for Adem Somyurek and the Mods Squad to claim leadership of a “rebellious Right” faction.

Small change, but the departure of Conroy was something else. The timing and manner looks suspicious indeed. No one in the party knew of Conroy’s departure from the Senate before he announced it. Acting leader Tanya Plibersek learned of it live on air. Shorten was overseas — by some (likely apocryphal) accounts, out of cell phone range in Canada, so that when he came back into coverage, dozens of messages tumbled instantly into his phone.

That led to suspicions that Conroy’s timing was an ambush, but insiders deny that: “It really was actual family reasons.”

“At some point you keep your family, or your job, not both”.

But they also believe that Conroy assumed he would be able to retain substantial factional power from the “afterlife”.

Nevertheless, Conroy’s departure marked the end of the “Short-Cons”, the leadership group of Labour Unity, based around the Shorten-aligned Australian Workers Union (AWU), and the Conroy-aligned Transport Workers Union (TWU). The “Shortcons” had arisen from the wars within the Victorian Right in 2008-9. Though the Shortcon — “Taliban” division shadowed the lines of the 1955 ALP-DLP split, and thus had some content, nothing could be counted on.

Hence there was dismay but not surprise when Shorten backed/demanded the placing of former Health Services Union (HSU) manager Kimberley Kitching in Stephen Conroy’s vacated Senate spot. A former Melbourne City Councillor, married to Andrew Landeryou, Kitching was a dubious public asset for Labor.

She had been appointed as general manager to the HSU in the wake of the chaos left by Kathy Jackson, with another Right figure, Diana Asmar, as titular head. Despite there being a media celebration of her tenure by friendly figures, the HSU’s condition became worse under her and Asmar’s tenure, with $1.4 million spent on legal fees, in one year alone, part of that defending Kitching and Asmar against multiple claims to the trade union royal commission that they had sat “right-of-entry” tests for union representatives.

Kitching had previously been registered bankrupt after the online gambling venture Landeryou had started — with backing from Melbourne business identity Solomon Lew — had collapsed in 2004. Landeryou had fled for Costa Rica, ahead of an arrest warrant; Kitching sold her then-$2 million house in Parkville (now worth much, much more) to discharge her bankruptcy.

Being associated with Kitching and Landeryou, the chubby Ceacescus of the Victorian Right, is disastrous for Shorten, on the national stage. But faction-wise, he has little choice. He needs to ensure the continuing support of the HSU over which the couple hold sway. Not only has the former Short-Con alliance become an every-faction-man-for-himself affair, but the atomisation is becoming total.

Shorten’s base union, the Victorian branch of the AWU explored, and tentatively signed on for, the new CU-IL alliance in late 2017. Conroy’s base union, the TWU, also signed on — and has shown far less interest in dealing with Conroy’s nominated lieutenant, Corio MP Richard Marles.

Shorten met with Somyurek because, in the words of Socialist Left insider, “Bill got scared”. Beyond the Victorian civil war stands the land of New South Wales, and the figure of Anthony Albanese, who has, in past weeks, been making undoubtable moves to re-assert his media visibility, and define himself against Shorten’s centrism (not getting a left pinkwash, ahead of the Batman byelection). Factional command is fractured and balkanised in Victoria; less so in NSW.

The transfer of the AWU and the TWU to the new CU-IL alliance is effectively the departure of the Right side of the Stability Pact. But without the might of the SL, it remains stuck at 33%. Sources close to the SL leadership believe they’ll remain stuck there.

“They’ll eventually start to peel off. If they can’t get above 33%, then the SL will control the winnable Senate seats. The AWU are already reconsidering.”

Sources close to the AWU deny that.

“No, they’re signed up. They’re not backing out. The SDA will make a decision in the next few weeks. This has to be sorted out by then. The SL has been taking over the Pact, and the party, anyway. A lot of this is about finding a partner for the Industrial Left, otherwise things will get a bit loose.”

“Look this is how it is — it’s been this way for a hundred years. Everyone says [the process] will change, but it never does.”

Indeed. Which is why for Bill Shorten, a meeting with a handful of subfactional warlords and small union leaders is as crucial to eventual victory as the battle at the despatch box and the national stage. Crucial, but fraught with risk. Though hobbled anew by the Barnaby Joyce crisis, the Coalition will throw everything they’ve got at the figures now gathering around Bill Shorten.

Where once it was Stephen Conroy and Kim Carr in the picture, soon it could be Kimberley Kitching, Andrew Landeryou and, from the Left, Jane Garrett. The Coalition would be hoping for a narrow rerun of 2016 on that basis: a squeaked-in victory gained from centrish people swallowing their loathing for Malcolm Turnbull long enough to vote for him.

Labor is betting that the Coalition’s problems are now so grave as to make that a minor matter. They better hope so. Can you feel the electricity, Bill? If you lose this one with the crowd of desperadoes gathered around you, the rank-and-file of your long suffering party will be looking to put a million volts of it through you.

Stay tuned for the final instalment in this series