Ferguson installed amid ALP factional deals


Ferguson installed amid ALP factional deals

By Dave Mizon

MELBOURNE — The factional brawls over the ALP national executive's decision to install ACTU president Martin Ferguson in the federal seat of Batman have highlighted, once again, how undemocratic the Labor Party is.

After five weeks of spectacular ALP-style wheeling and dealing, the two other candidates, Jenny Mikakos from the Pledge and Theo Theophanous from the Socialist Left factions stood aside in favour of Ferguson. Despite claims by both candidates that national intervention was a threat to ALP unity, neither has announced their resignation.

Since Batman is a safe Labor seat and ALP politicians are not recallable, factional leaders knew that whoever won the preselection battle would stand a good chance of a long-term, well-paid parliamentary career.

A deal between the "left" and right factions ensured that only "left" candidates would stand. In Victoria, the "left" is split into two factions, and both the Socialist Left and Pledge groups stood a candidate.

Because sub-branches participate in the preselection vote, each candidate attempts to gain control over as many sub-branches as possible. The candidates join up as many people as they can, usually on an apolitical basis such as "Vote for me, I'm Greek (Italian, Turkish, etc). I know what Greek (Italian, Turkish, etc) Australians need".

Five weeks ago, when Ferguson announced his candidacy, this frenzied factional preparation came to an abrupt halt when the ALP's national leadership began pressuring the factions to withdraw their candidates.

The PM and the ALP national secretary promised that, if necessary, they would intervene to secure the seat for Ferguson. Ferguson, they said, was the person for the job: already a national media figure, his proven record in implementing ALP policy in the ACTU meant that he was the "stand-out" candidate.

While the "left" made plenty of noise about democracy and the rights of local members, it took no action. In return for their "sacrifice", Mikakos and Theophanous have been promised rewards come future preselections. In the meantime, Mikakos is to be made ALP state president.

The Batman debacle reveals that the ALP factions are not about political issues, but career moves. Theophanous, a Victorian state parliamentarian, was a co-author, with opposition leader John Brumby, of the Victorian ALP's "fiscal responsibility" document. Released late last year, it promised Kennett-style policies if elected.

The claim by Theophanous that Greeks would be unfairly treated if a Greek candidate didn't win, was simply designed to stir up a support base.

The other issue raised by the Batman faction fight was the contempt of ALP power brokers for last year's ALP conference decision that 35% of preselections for safe seats go to women.

Initially, Mikakos campaigned strongly on affirmative action. However, when it was clear that her career would be jeopardised if she didn't stand aside, she stepped back.

Neither of the former candidates had anything critical to say about Ferguson's role in implementing wage cuts through Labor's Accord. As ACTU president since 1990, Ferguson has presided over the introduction of enterprise bargaining, a decline in work conditions, a massive shift from wages to profits and an acceleration in the decline of union membership.

Ferguson's candidature underscores the relationship between the ALP and the ACTU. Many ALP parliamentarians are former leaders of the ACTU: in 1981 Bob Hawke, then ACTU president, became opposition spokesperson on industrial relations; Ralph Willis, the current treasurer, left the ACTU for parliament in 1972; and Simon Crean moved from ACTU president to junior ALP minister in 1990.

The ALP machine pushed local candidates aside for Hawke and Crean, for the same reasons it did for Ferguson. The only difference this time was the very public nature of the whole undemocratic process.

The one thing the Batman debacle did successfully was to further expose the real nature of the so-called lefts inside the ALP.