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Labors fractional sub-factions active in the west

22 April 2013 1,900 views No Comment

Labors fractional sub-factions active in the west

Factional manoeuvring is alive and well in the Labor Party.

The latest prime example occurred on Monday last week, at a meeting of the West Australian state executive. The headline story coming out of the nights proceedings in Perth was the choice of Joe Bullock to head Labor’s Senate ticket for the federal election. His success precipitated the retirement of Senator Mark Bishop, who no longer could get a winnable spot on the ticket.

The West Australian executive also had to fill a casual Senate vacancy. The person chosen is a unionist, Sue Lines. Unlike Bullock, who must wait until July 1 next year before his term actually starts, Lines goes straight into the Senate. She will then serve as a non-elected appointee in the upper house for four long years until June 30, 2017. This is a juicy prospect. Appointment to a Senate casual vacancy is a prize political plum and has certainly has been treated as such in Western Australia. The need for Labor to come up with a replacement senator in the west arose when the governments then leader in the Senate, Chris Evans, announced in February that he was retiring thus precipitating a casual vacancy. Voters have no say at all in the filling of Senate casual vacancies. These are filled by the state executive of the party that holds the seat nominating a replacement. In the ALP, these nominations are usually decided on a strictly factional basis. Western Australia is no exception.

Since the 1990s, one of the winnable Labor Senate seats is always allocated to the so-called Missos sub-faction, which comprises people in the overall Left faction whose connection is a shared link with the former Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union. The departing Evans belonged to this sub-faction. His association with the Missos began back in 1982, when he started working as an industrial officer for the unions West Australian branch. After Evans indicated he was retiring, Labor’s state executive was required to nominate a suitable successor to fill the Missos seat in the Senate. The state executive comprises about 175 delegates. On paper, this seems like a lot of people, but in practice most of the delegates currently orbit around a few big sub-factional blocs, notably the right-wing Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (the Shoppies) led by Bullock, and its left-wing counterpart, United Voice, which is the rebadged incarnation of the old Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union.

The Maritime Union Of Australia has benefited from a recent recruitment drive in Western Australia, which will ensure it gets a much larger presence on the state executive, but the resulting readjustment in representation on the executive does not take effect until after the end of this month. So the Missos sub-faction still had first call on Evans old seat when the executive members met last week to fill the casual vacancy. As had been widely anticipated, Lines was the Missos person chosen by the executive to succeed Evans. Her factional credentials were impeccable. She was assistant national secretary of United Voice and represented it on the ALP national executive. As a unionist, Lines was
not a non-entity. She was involved in campaigns to secure fair conditions and professional wages for workers in the early childhood education and aged-care sectors. But this record of achievement, while impressive, had nothing directly to do with the Senate appointment. The determining factor was a perception of binding loyalty to a key sub-faction in the Labor Party, the Missos.

The reality is that an impenetrable system of factional loyalties continues to be crucial in determining the composition of the parliamentary Labor Party. Factionalism can be opaque and mystifying to outsiders. When the West Australian state executive met, the right-wing Shoppies sub-faction joined United Voice in endorsing the left-wing Lines. This endorsement was made because United Voice had already agreed
to Joe Bullock being chosen to head the states Labor Senate ticket in September.

Such an elaborate system of recruitment based on factional ties fascinates political junkies but leaves most voters cold. A party so structured finds it even harder to connect with the electorate at large. Whether an unfavourable election outcome on September 14 means a diminished role for Labor’s thicket of sub-factions is one of the big questions in Australian politics. The strength of these various fiefdoms may well be debilitating to the party as a whole. Nonetheless they are continuing to luxuriate even on the eve of an extremely challenging federal election as shown by how Western Australia’s very latest senator was produced.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His most recent books are ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ and the political satire ‘Fool’s Paradise’.

‘The Canberra Times’, 22 April 2013