The campaign for Saturday’s state by-election in the Melbourne seat of Kororoit, initiated by the retirement of one-time Police Minister Andre Haermeyer, did not at first seem a matter of great interest. Located in the rock-solid Labor outer western suburbs, from northern St Albans out to Caroline Springs, the seat was won by Haermeyer at the two elections following its creation in 2002 by margins of 27.1 per cent and 25.6 per cent. It was thus easy to dismiss the election as a rubber stamp following the real contest: Labor preselection. This well and truly lived up to the high stakes of a safe seat, producing what Rick Wallace of The Australian described as a a proxy war for who controls the ALP’s dominant Right faction in Victoria. In one corner were the Australian Workers Union and the Transport Workers Union, respectively associated with Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy, who found themselves opposed by an alliance of the Health Services Union and Shop Assistants Union. The two camps’ respective candidates were Natalie Suleyman, former mayor of Brimbank, and Marlene Kairouz, former mayor of Darebin.
The latter group initially succeeded in having the Right’s executive vote eight votes to seven to have Kairouz (right) installed as candidate by the party’s national executive, bypassing local party structures said to have been compromised by branch stacking and fractious relations on Brimbank Council. According to a source quoted by The Age, this decision was made at a meeting at which faction members screamed abuse at each other. Shorten and Conroy won round two by having the national executive overturn the decision, resulting in a normal preselection process in which votes were split between local branches and the state party’s Public Office Selection Committee. However, Kairouz was unexpectedly able to defeat Suleyman in the local ballot 125 votes to 123 (after distribution of the 27 votes for Left faction contestant Justin Mammarella), which was credited to the influence of Keilor MP and local numbers man George Seitz. Her win was confirmed by a 38-29 vote in her favour on the POSC.
For all the sound and fury behind the preselection, the spoils for the victor were less secure than the 2006 margin suggested. It is a little realised fact that major parties are most vulnerable to independents in safe seats, where challengers face a lower hurdle to reach second place and potentially win on preferences. The possibility of such a scenario unfolding was dramatically increased by the entry into the field of Les Twentyman (left), who has achieved a level of celebrity throughout Melbourne through his efforts as a social worker, being named Victorian of the Year in 2006. Twentyman’s campaign has been supported by the Electrical Trades Union and, significantly, by Phil Cleary, who won the 1992 federal by-election for Wills in very similar circumstances after Bob Hawke retired. Furthermore, the Liberals have made the surprising but evidently astute decision to field a candidate, public servant Jenny Matic, who is likely to marshall preferences for Twentyman without doing well enough to outpoll him.
According to The Australian, Labor internal polling shows their support down to 45 per cent from 61 per cent at the 2006 election, with Twentyman having picked up the bulk of Labor’s vote. However, the report adds the following qualification:
Although the result has alarmed some within the ALP, sources said the polling understates Labor’s position. Almost 50per cent of the electorate was born overseas and about 14per cent of its voters do not speak English well and would be unlikely to participate in a phone poll. The ALP sources argued the ethnic voters excluded from the survey were more likely to vote for it than Mr Twentyman or the Liberals.
It also says the poll had Kairouz leading Twentyman 62-38 on two-candidate preferred, which credits Labor with a remarkably strong flow of preferences from Matic and the other candidates: Marcus Power (Greens), Andre Kozlowski (Citizens Electoral Council) and Tania Walters (Independent). Read all about them at Antony Green’s summary.
UPDATE: AKP in comments notes that Walters did remarkably well to score 14 per cent as Family First candidate in 2006 and is now directing preferences to Kairouz in her run as an independent, which presumably has something do to with her links to the pro-life SDA.