by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Sectarianism rears its ugly head in Victorian ALP
, June 29, 2002
The recent decision by the National Union of Workers (NUW) to withdraw from the right-leaning Labor Unity grouping within the Victorian ALP and throw its lot in with the minority Socialist Left faction sounds warning bells for both Victorian Premier Steve Bracks and Federal Opposition leader Simon Crean.
NUW National Secretary Greg Sword is National President of the ALP, and his decision to re-align with the party's left is unprecedented considering that, at the time of his defection, he formally headed Labor's national right faction.Suggestive
His decision has been marked by some ugly but suggestive references to Catholic influence inside the ALP.
Both newspaper and internet reports of the NUW withdrawal from Labor Unity have referred to alleged NUW concerns over the role of unnamed "conservative Catholic organisations". It is also alleged that the moderate Shop Distributive Association, whose officials predominantly profess the Catholic faith, is wielding too much influence in the Victorian ALP.
The factional dispute also involves some bitter clashes over union elections - with Greg Sword and ALP Secretary David Feeney backing different tickets in balloting within the Health Services Union.
The dispute came to a head at the recent Victorian ALP Conference on May 18-19, where a Health Services Union delegation aligned with Feeney was denied access to the conference. At the same time, a brawl inside the left-controlled Metal Workers Union over its conference delegation split both the left and right, with Sword and Feeney backing different positions on that as well.
Because of legal complications over the status of the AMWU delegation, voting for administrative positions inside the ALP that should have taken place at the Conference was referred to a postal ballot finishing on June 21.
The results, not known at the time News Weekly
went to press, are expected to show a swing to the left as a result of the NUW realignment. Sword's group has announced that it will be voting with the Socialist Left to stop the election of Bill Shorten from the Australian Workers Union as the new ALP State President, and to sack Party Secretary Feeney from his post.
Shorten's fate will be known on June 21, while Feeney's will be determined by a meeting of the new Administrative Committee on June 28. Both Shorten and Feeney happen to be Catholic.
Premier Steve Bracks, also a Catholic, has prided himself on building cordial relations with the Melbourne archdiocese, and with other Christian churches. It appears that this tentative building of bridges between the ALP and the Church has antagonised the Labor Left and older sectarian elements.Welcomed
The SDA, which had previously left the Labor Party in 1955 at the time of the Great Split, returned to the Victorian ALP in 1985 at the express invitation of then Prime Minister Bob Hawke. It was part of a deliberate strategy by Labor to symbolically "end" the Split, and assert publicly that Catholics were welcome in the new Labor Party.
That welcome may be at an end. The Victorian ALP appears about to return to its old form, and hang up the notice in its front window "Catholics need not apply."
As there is little genuine policy debate in the ALP or other political parties currently, with the Lib-Lab privatisation and deregulatory consensus rarely challenged inside either party, the current squabbles seem to be entirely based on personality clashes between Sword and Feeney.Internet revelations
Another noteworthy element of the current dispute has been the use of the Internet to circulate anonymous rumours and speculation.
The "crikey.com.au" website maintained by anti-Jeff Kennett campaigner and corporate whistleblower Stephen Mayne has been featuring numerous ALP leaks and attacks on competing factions.
The language of many contributions is intemperate, but as a guide to the emotions currently unleashed inside the Victorian ALP, it is extremely informative.
Lists of Labor parliamentarians who are under threat from the new factional arrangement have been posted on the Internet, and the reasons for the threats against Shorten and Feeney's positions are outlined in quite lurid detail.
While the Bracks Government rides high over a divided Liberal Party led by the pleasant but ineffective Dr Denis Napthine, these internal divisions in the ALP provide the first real prospect that the Liberals and Nationals may have some chance at state elections which were, until now, expected before Christmas this year. The State poll could now be delayed well into 2003.