Calls for renewal in Parliament are hollow without a serious reconsideration of the power imbalances that govern the parliamentary pipeline. In three federal preselections this year across three states, all of them “safe seats”, branches of my party, Labor, prioritised factional convenience and crushed future-focused, community-minded aspirants. I was one of them. In each contest, the playing field wasn’t just unlevel – it was an unworkable battlefield.
This week, it’s in one of these three seats, Fowler in Sydney, where powerbrokers are backing Kristina Keneally to displace local candidate Tu Le. The scramble to justify the decision by invoking Keneally’s qualifications misses the point. The issue is ALP state branches are constitutionally unable and culturally unwilling to ensure competitive preselections.
I discovered this when I ran against the preferred, parachuted candidate in the safe South Australian seat of Spence. When I nominated, I was quietly told: “They are out for blood.” The message was clear: contest this and we’ll destroy you.
Last month, Labor women’s support network EMILY’s List released a report, The Missing Women of Australian Politics. Its author, Medha Majumdar, laid out a worrisome but familiar pattern of behaviour for how preselections turn toxic and dangerous. Her recommendations suggest confronting intimidation in party codes of conduct. However, in the ALP’s example, the party can only guarantee integrity of process in its preselections when the power to promote is redistributed from the vice-like grip of a small, secretive few.
The power to control careers is the defining feature of the ALP’s notorious “faceless men”. At their whim, opportunities appear or vanish. Some branches are evolving into niche, exclusive employment agencies.
Verbal and physical threats, standover tactics, intimidating supporters and the construction of vile rumour mills are tools deployed when a challenger dares to front the bosses. In my case, sensational scuttlebutt was directly transmitted from the offices of elected members and party officials. Preselectors were instructed: Alice Dawkins is dishonest about her membership status, a deficient volunteer, bad for the party, and you should not speak to her.
Many members sitting in safe lower house seats waited years, some even a decade, for their time. Their path to the pinnacle of public office was overwhelmingly secured not by winning the contest of ideas, but by patiently waiting for the moment of their (usually uncontested) nomination to transpire. Some of them might incidentally be effective parliamentary operators. But none of them will be willing to dismantle the problematic system that created them.
It wasn’t always like this. In years gone by in the ALP, union bosses and factional players understood that their most effective advocates could come from unexpected or unorthodox places. Queues of hopeful nominees would line up to put their case to the preselection decision-makers. Speeches would be spirited and the atmosphere lively. Like any contest, there were favourites and advantages, but without today’s feverish pre-gaming and fixation on controlling outcomes.