Labor factions still rule, women pay the price

Labor party renewal is still being stymied by factional cronyism, with men being put into safer seats and higher on senate tickets rather than equally qualified or sometimes even more talented women.

Oops they did it again. The only political party in Australia to use quotas to increase the proportion of female MPs in its ranks has again flouted the principle by choosing a man over a woman for a safe parliamentary seat.

This time it has occurred in Queensland, with the Labor Party’s left faction hustling former federal minister, Senator Jan McLucas, from her post in favour of former Queensland MP Murray Watt.

Watt is expected to be the number one candidate on Labor’s Queensland ticket, assuring him of success at the next federal election.

At first glance, the ousting of McLucas could be seen as much-needed renewal, given the former teacher and city councillor was first elected to the Senate in 1998. Watt, on the other hand, is a practising lawyer who has also been a senior public servant, chief of staff (to former Queensland premier Anna Bligh), Labor campaign director, and a state MP. He’s also 15 years younger than McLucas.

In fact, Watt’s strong credentials, and qualities as a personable man in his prime, make him an ideal candidate to run in a moderately marginal seat in the lower house. But no, that’s not how things are done in the “modern” Labor party – it’s apparently more important to reward factional loyalists such as Watt with a six-year tenure on the red leather benches than it is for the party to be competitive in the chamber that actually determines government.

Queensland Labor’s right faction has made a similar move, encouraging former senator Joe Ludwig to move on in favour of – you guessed it – yet another man. In this case it’s former Queensland state secretary Anthony Chisholm who will get the sinecure. Chisholm recently ran Labor’s successful state election campaign against the Newman government.

There’s no denying both Watt and Chisholm are politically talented men. And they’re a vast improvement on the two new Labor Senators elected at the 2013 election, Chris Ketter for Queensland and Joe Bullock for Western Australia, both of whom were long-serving officials of the right-wing Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association before getting their cushy new jobs.

You might recall a deal between the left and right factions resulted in Bullock winning the number one spot on Labor’s ticket for the WA Senate election re-run, relegating the much younger and arguably more talented Louise Pratt to the second spot and the end of her Senate career.

Former Labor finance minister Penny Wong almost met the same fate, with another former SDA official turned Senator, Don Farrell, chosen by the state’s dominant right-wing faction to take the first spot on the South Australian Labor ticket for the 2013 election.

After considerable public outcry and a threat by the left’s Anthony Albanese to ask the ALP national executive to overturn the decision, Farrell relinquished the number one position to Wong. Labor then failed to secure enough votes in South Australia to elect two senators, meaning Farrell was lost to the parliamentary party instead of Wong.

Granted, Labor is wise to bring fresh blood into its parliamentary ranks, but the party tends to put men into safer seats and higher on senate tickets than it does equally qualified or sometimes even more talented women. Co-convenor of Emily’s List Australia, Tanja Kovac, has suggested only about 20 per cent of “traditionally old-guard Labor” seats go to women.

Before the 2013 federal election, one media report suggested that of the 10 safe Labor seats being vacated, only three would go to women.

They were former WA state minister Alannah MacTiernan, who replaced Stephen Smith; Joanne Ryan, who took the baton from Julia Gillard; and Sharon Claydon, who succeeded Sharon Grierson in Newcastle. These women, along with two others, were among the 11 new Labor members elected in 2013, bringing the proportion of female Labor MPs to 38 per cent and Senators to 56 per cent, and the overall average in federal parliament to almost 44 per cent. Labor’s current quota is 40 per cent.

Some with a more generous heart than this writer’s might accept Labor’s current reversion to preselect male candidates as an act of complacency, considering the quota has been met. Labor’s 21 female MPs (from 55), also compares favourably with the Coalition’s 18, which is only 20 per cent of its 90 MPs.

But in reality, the fate of Labor women is shaped more by factional influences than the quota. McLucas, Pratt and Wong (nearly) lost their places in parliament to men, not because they were poor performers but because the factions wanted to give their seats to other factional loyalists deemed more “deserving”.

Labor party renewal, while ostensibly achieved by the selection of new-blood candidates such as Murray Watt, is actually being stymied by factional cronyism.

Labor party elder John Faulkner made this clear in a controversial speech last year, in which he was reported to have said Labor must modernise and increase internal democracy by giving more power to members, re-evaluating its relationship with union leaders and “undemocratic” factions, and eliminating the “stench of corruption” in NSW.

While this wasn’t the first time Faulkner had criticised the factions, his latest entreaty followed on from similar calls by Labor Leader Bill Shorten. Following Labor’s defeat at the 2013 election, Shorten called for major reforms to the party saying “the role of unions within our party has developed into a factional, centralised decision-making role” and that Labor “must rebuild as a membership-based party, not a faction-based one.”

Not surprisingly, the factions and unions are pushing back. The Victorian Labor Party’s conference earlier this month voted down the national leader’s proposed “70-30” reforms, which would have reduced the votes of union representatives in preselection processes from 50 per cent to 30 per cent and given rank-and-file members the other 70 per cent of the vote.

NSW Labor also voted against the reform last year, despite Faulkner declaiming the state party’s current preselection processes as “by the factions, for the factions, [and] between candidates from the factions,” which had “at times produced the worst candidates through a profoundly flawed system”.

Faulkner and Shorten have taken on an ambitious challenge in seeking to rein in the power of Labor’s factions. But they do so in the knowledge that it would not only result in the selection of more female candidates, but better candidates overall.

Labor cannot renew while it continues to atrophy under its deals and cronyism. The future viability of Labor depends on it broadening its appeal to prospective members, supporters and voters. A party made small and twisted by the manoeuvrings of its factions will only achieve the opposite.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

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