Although the Labor Party is dominant in Victoria right now, with long periods in office since 1999 and an enormous lower house majority, for most of its history the opposite has been the case.
Since Federation, Victorian Labor’s story has been characterised mostly by infighting, wasted opportunities and defeat. And, with its latest sub-factional, winner-takes-all preselection deal rubber-stamped by the party’s national executive on Monday, it appears to be surrendering to the darker impulses of its past.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.Credit:Justin McManus
Before the election of the Andrews government in 2014, the ALP had experienced only three periods of office in which it enjoyed the solid endorsement of the electorate. Led by former shopkeeper John Cain in 1952, it swept into power but was brought down heavily by the infamous split just three years later, consigning the ALP to the wilderness for a generation.
In 1982, Cain’s son, also John, ended 27 years of opposition with a solid election win. He won another two terms before surrendering the leadership to Joan Kirner against a background of mismanagement and factional warfare. A landslide defeat followed.
The outlier in Labor’s story is the Bracks-Brumby era of 1999-2010: no great factional eruptions, steady governance, few scandals, an aversion to divisive leadership. When Labor lost the 2010 election, its reputation was still good. This was no landslide loss, and the party was well-placed to rebuild and retake office just four years later.
That reputation is being squandered as the Andrews government fails to meet the challenge of overcoming its troubles with branch-stacking and potentially illegal misuse of public resources. What looked like an opportunity to clean up the party when then-minister Adem Somyurek’s extensive branch-stacking operation was exposed to the public last year has turned into a festival of revenge, arrogance and weak leadership.
The ALP and the state government, all the way up to and including Daniel Andrews, are reaping what they’ve sown. For years, leading figures have at the very least turned a blind eye to, or profited from, distortions in party membership numbers. Andrews actually restored Somyurek to the front bench in 2018.
Eventually, it had to turn bad, and it did as the main factions, the right-wing Centre Unity grouping and the Socialist Left, gradually broke off into smaller tendencies and sub-factions. Personality clashes, ambition and the pursuit of preferment will do that.
The so-called stability deal between elements of the right, chiefly the shop assistants’ and transport workers’ unions, and parts of the Socialist Left, guarantees instability all the way through the federal and state election year of 2022. Seven state MPs have got it in the neck. Four lower house MPs, including three ministers, have been deselected and three upper house members have been moved to unwinnable spots on the party’s ticket.
Most were connected to Somyurek. There is an argument that they could not stay on but the summary way in which they have been purged will only invite reprisals. Already there’s talk of the ex-ministers Marlene Kairouz, Robin Scott and Luke Donnellan resigning and triggering a series of byelections in Melbourne’s west, north and outer south-east respectively next year.
Former ministers Marlene Kairouz and Robin Scott. Credit:The Age
That would make for a rotten scenario for Andrews in the lead-up to a state election. Who’s to say pandemic-fatigued voters in outer Melbourne might not want to give the Premier a bloody nose?
Defenders of the deal say that voters won’t pay attention to internal party goings-on, but they will if the governing party looks like a warring shambles, continually generating media coverage that shows it as disunited and more interested in itself than in voters’ concerns.
You can expect the Liberal Party’s dirt unit to be trawling through the backgrounds of every ALP retainer, adviser and union official who’s been preselected under this deal. But the excluded Labor people who know a few secrets will be a danger too. Those prospering from the deal will want to be sure that nothing they’ve done in the past will attract the attention of IBAC.
The Australian Workers’ Union, Bill Shorten’s power base, has been hurt by this arrangement. This benefits Labor’s federal deputy leader Richard Marles, a proponent of the deal, by weakening Shorten’s chances of returning to the leadership in the event of the ALP losing next year’s national election. But the AWU and its allies still have the capacity to do some damage. After all, the stability deal is said to exclude what they claim is 40 per cent of the party.
The cycle of revenge is unseemly, for sure. But how else could it go when the solution to the unchecked accumulation of power is to replace it with more of the same, just with different individuals in charge? What’s been missing is leadership, proper rules of engagement, a moral framework, empathy and consultation. It all amounts to rough justice.
It’s difficult to imagine Steve Bracks allowing this to happen, much less issuing a list of MPs he wanted to see kicked out from his government, as Andrews has done. In today’s febrile political environment, landslide majorities provide much less insurance for governments than they used to, something Labor could well learn to its cost next November.
Shaun Carney is a regular columnist.
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