Factional forces in the ACT Labor Party are in disarray today after a Left-Right deal to split the safe Federal seats of Canberra and Fraser was defeated by party members who ignored the deal to preselect Andrew Leigh and Gai Brodtmann.
The factions had negotiated an agreement to pick Tanya Plibersek staffer Mary Wood for the Right in Canberra and ALP Assistant National Secretary Nick Martin of the Left in Fraser, which is currently held by retiring unaligned MP Bob McMullan. Canberra is traditionally a Right-held seat but the faction’s declining influence there led to a deal with Left to enable the Left to seize Fraser from unaligned forces who have held the seat for over a decade.
The deal initially was to deliver Canberra to former Mark Latham staffer Michael Cooney, who pushed incumbent Annette Ellis out of the seat, but the Left rebelled against Cooney’s right-to-life views and Cooney withdrew in favour of Wood.
However the deals came to nothing as preselectors ignored the factions. In Fraser, outstanding ANU economist Andrew Leigh defeated Martin 144-96. Leigh and his wife had worked the phones hard in the weeks leading up to the preselection, and Leigh hammered out a deal with another academic, constitutional lawyer George Williams (running for the smaller Right faction, Labor Unity) to swap preferences. This was critical to his success as whoever of those two started strongly would receive a boost from the other’s preferences. The deal lifted Leigh clear of another strong unaligned candidate, Michael Pilbrow.
It is understood that Martin receive virtually no preferences from unaligned preselectors – the nightmare scenario for the Left faction that meant he started strongly but never had enough votes to get over the line.
In the last fortnight Pilbrow had been considered the candidate to beat, with the Left faction raising the toxic issue of abortion (normally the death-knell for any candidate in ACT Labor) and whether Pilbrow was a right-to-lifer, a charge Pilbrow vigorously denied.
In Canberra, communications consultant Gai Brodtmann’s margin was much closer, defeating Wood by 17 votes. Brodtmann, who has been active in the local party much longer than Wood, is broadly aligned with the Right, but came under quite vicious attack during the contest. Several Labor sources have told Crikey that last week an anonymous yellow A4 envelope was delivered to the homes of a number of preselectors in Canberra containing slanderous allegations about Brodtmann. The “dossier” is also said to have included material which appeared to be confidential Australian Public Service documents, and an anodyne, publicly-available statutory declaration by Brodtmann relating to her period of employment in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade provided to the Oil-for-Food inquiry. That document had been widely circulated by opponents in an attempt to link her, however spuriously, with the AWB scandal.
Brodtmann’s win upsets the careful balance that saw the Left control an ACT Senate spot, unaligned forces control Fraser and the Right Canberra, while Leigh’s win ensures the unaligned Bob McMullan will be succeeded by another non-factional figure. In Leigh’s case, this may mean he is condemned to the same backbench limbo in which McMullan spent much of the last decade. It is to be hoped that we haven’t lost an outstanding economist and gained a backbencher whose talents will never be used because his party’s factions prefer their own.