Still too many red ribbon seats for the boys
Aspiring Labor politicians have always dreamed of seats like Lalor, Scullin, Hotham, Gellibrand and Batman.
In such a fickle business, these patches are as good as it gets: safe electorates with healthy margins to sustain long-term careers.
Over the years, seats like these have laid the foundation for Labor luminaries such as Julia Gillard, Simon Crean and Barry Jones. And because they are so safe, they are rarely vacated, held on to tightly, and fiercely fought over.
Talent is gradually depleted as people become increasingly dissuaded from having a go.
But right now – with Kevin Rudd’s resurrection and the aftermath of Labor’s leadership woes paving the way for a spate of retirements – the party is facing a rash of these seats being vacated at the same time.
It is an opportunity for fresh talent to emerge, affirmative-action targets to be met, and the leaders of tomorrow to make their mark. But somehow, Labor has lost its way.
Of 10 safe Labor seats being vacated around the country, only a few are going to women: Lalor, Bendigo, and Perth. The majority are being gifted to men, most of whom have climbed the ranks of the party machine as union officials, parliamentary staffers or factional hacks.
Even in Gillard’s prized seat of Lalor – where five out of the original six nominees were women – the one parachuted in by Right powerbrokers admitted she had no connection with Melbourne, no ALP pedigree, and no involvement in the electorate she sought to represent.
For a party that prides itself on strong community representation, you’ve got to wonder what’s going on.
Insiders point to a range of factors: the lack of succession planning to identify emerging talent; the inability, particularly of the Right, to groom enough promising women; factional deals where seats are carved up and candidates are installed on the basis of loyalty over merit.
As a consequence, talent is gradually depleted as people become increasingly dissuaded from having a go. The big question, of course, is how to tackle the problem.
Melbourne University professor Brian Howe, a former deputy prime minister in the Keating government, says part of the challenge is getting more people actively involved in the party, so there’s a bigger pool from which to select.
He points to Rudd’s proposed reforms – which would give grassroots members a greater say on the parliamentary leadership – as a positive step, but says broader change is needed to stamp out branch stacking and encourage ”genuine” participation within the ALP.
Community based primary preselections, in which members and registered ”supporters” can select local candidates, may be one way to attract new members and broaden engagement, he suggests. ”That interest may well translate into more active involvement in the future,” says Howe, a professorial associate in the Centre for Public Policy. ”That’s important, because when you’re electing people in safe seats, you’re probably going to put that person in for around 20 years, and almost certainly some of those people will be in cabinets at state or federal level. Therefore, to have just one or two candidates is ridiculous. There should be a whole team of people competing to represent progressive politics in these kind of seats.”
State Labor MP Cesar Melham, who was parachuted into the Victorian Parliament earlier this year, admits the Right faction has ”dropped the ball” when it comes to future planning.
The former Australian Workers’ Union state secretary has a point. The last time the Right installed a female candidate in a safe Victorian seat was former attorney-general Nicola Roxon in Gellibrand – 15 years ago.
”One of the things we need to do is start identifying talent years in advance,” says Melham. ”We did that pretty well in the past with young Labor, but I think in the last three to four years that has dropped a bit.
”We don’t actually need everyone to be high flyers, future ministers and future prime ministers, because if you do that, you’ll get chaos. It’s about getting the mix right.”
Whether Labor’s next generation of MPs are ”the right mix” is a moot point. In Victoria, Telstra executive Tim Watts has been preselected to run in Roxon’s old seat of Gellibrand; factional powerbroker and senator David Feeney will take Martin Ferguson’s seat of Batman; lawyer and former Socialist Left convener Andrew Giles has been preselected for Harry Jenkins’ old seat of Scullin; while Monash councillor Geoff Lake is backed by Simon Crean to replace him in the south-eastern seat of Hotham against another grassroots candidate, Rosemary Barker.
All are clearly talented, but the lack of women is telling. Interstate, it’s a similar tale: of the three seats being vacated by former ministers Peter Garrett, Greg Combet and Craig Emerson, all are likely to be filled by men.
With the system so clearly skewed, it’s inevitable some may be put off by the process. As one well-placed source conceded: ”This is a hostile environment for anyone. It’s a particularly hostile environment for women.”
The catch-22 is also whether candidates should have grassroots connections and party experience, or whether it’s worth taking a chance on someone outside Labor’s traditional gene pool.
Such was the dilemma last week when Australian diplomat Lisa Clutterham, a friend of Trade Minister Richard Marles, entered the battle for Lalor against primary school principal Joanne Ryan, Gillard’s preferred candidate, and Oz Opera manager Sandra Willis, the daughter of Keating-era treasurer Ralph Willis. (Health Services Union general manager Kimberley Kitching also entered the race, backed by Education Minister Bill Shorten, but withdrew late on Friday).
On paper, Clutterham may have been exactly the kind of person Labor needs to attract: a smart, enthusiastic, young person, with experience working for Australia’s high commission in Papua New Guinea.
But no sooner had the 29-year-old announced on ABC radio that she would run for preselection, came the startling admission that she never lived in Melbourne, had not spent any time in the electorate, and had only joined the Labor Party a few weeks ago. She withdrew from the race on Saturday, backing Ryan and citing ”the absolute need to have unity within the Labor Party”.
Former Victorian Labor premier Joan Kirner says there’s no shortage of talented women within the party – it’s a just a matter of bringing them up the ranks.
Sources from across the ALP also point to a number of women who could easily be part of Labor’s ”generation next”: among them are Plan International executive Mary-Anne Thomas, Glen Eira councillor Mary Delahunty, AWU state vice-president Shannon Threlfall-Clarke, and former Emily’s List convener Hutch Hussein.
But Kirner argues that without genuine reform to reset the party machine and put Labor on a more democratic footing, ”then there’ll be a real question mark on whether people with talent are preselected”.
Labor vice-president Jane Garrett, the state MP for Brunswick, agrees. ”It is values and engagement, rather than factionalism and side deals, that attracts people, particularly young people, to become members and leaders of the ALP,” she says.
Farrah Tomazin is state politics editor.