Labor should focus on the pandemic recovery, not party infighting

When former right-wing powerbroker and senior Victorian Labor minister Adem Somyurek was kicked out of the party by Premier Daniel Andrews last June, it was seen as a chance for Labor to cleanse itself of the kind of backroom factional bullying that had plagued the party for decades.

The Age’s reporting on Mr Somyurek’s alleged industrial-level branch stacking operation put on full public display how powerless most genuine party members were in Labor’s decision-making.

State Corrections Minister Natalie Hutchins is considering a run for the new seat of Hawke.Credit:Justin McManus

Since those revelations, Labor’s Victorian branch has been in administration. Party members were stripped of any say in preselections and authority was handed to Labor’s national executive, which is made up of officials from around the country.

But Mr Somyurek’s demise left a power vacuum in Victoria, and that was always going to be filled in some way. While some hoped the ordinary business of the party – of which the most important is choosing Labor’s parliamentary candidates – could be worked out amicably, the fierce internal battles being waged at the moment make clear that was wishful thinking.

Labor’s Socialist Left faction signed a new “stability deal” this week that carved up seats and shared power between the major factions. However, the deal excluded some sections of the Right, among them the Australian Workers Union.

The point of this agreement was to redistribute power from the hands of one dominant figure in Mr Somyurek and create a better balance between the party’s competing forces. But it has not eradicated the sometimes deep rivalries between powerbrokers, and these have now spilled out into open warfare.

The deal’s first big test is deciding on a candidate for the new federal seat of Hawke in Melbourne’s outer west. This is being fiercely contested and now – to the horror of those who want some decorum in party matters – has ended up in court.

At the state level the party should be focused on containing the pandemic, seeing through a huge infrastructure program and restoring the economy, and at the federal level it should be trying to regain power after losing the past three elections. Instead, it is wrangling internally – an unwanted distraction for its MPs and a public reminder of the backroom dealings that have so often tarnished the party’s reputation. Two people in the losing grouping are Treasurer Tim Pallas and Jobs Minister Martin Pakula, both of whom are crucial to the economic recovery. Their allies are now dealing with a new level of uncertainty. Another who has lost from this deal is Victoria’s most senior federal figure, Bill Shorten.

All this also highlights the vacuum that has been created by the absence of Premier Daniel Andrews since he injured his back in March. While the Premier is a member of a faction and can only control so much of the party’s internal deliberations, the authority he carries as leader of the state government gives him more say than virtually any other Labor figure in Victoria.

His personal power and influence in the role means his absence is felt even more keenly, both by the public and within the party. Acting Premier James Merlino, whose party faction stands to benefit from the stability pact, simply does not have the same authority to bang heads together and force an outcome.

Party elders Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin have been in charge of overseeing the internal Labor investigation and their charter is to empower the party’s real members to have their say, improving internal democracy. The latest wrangling makes it clear this is a very long way from being realised.

Instead, one factional powerbroker’s downfall has opened up the field for a new line-up of similar figures seeking to stitch up deals to consolidate their power. These are difficult times, and Labor’s return to backroom factional brawling is a distraction we can ill afford.

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