Factions have crippled Tasmania’s ALP. Now the paramedics are here.
Factional warfare has cost the Tasmanian ALP its two most popular and credible politicians; its parliamentary leader and state president; a state election; and two federal seats.
“I have a simple proposal for all groups in Australian politics,” said Kevin Rudd, “which is that factions should be banned.”
If it was that simple, it would have happened long ago. Factional hostilities reduced the federal Liberals to a right-wing rump that is no longer a credible party of government. And chieftains of the Left and Right in the Labor Party have pursued power for so long, and been so good at it, that elected politicians cannot survive without their support.
Factional mischief – ranging from political assassination through to serious impropriety and criminal corruption – has become so poisonous in the ALP’s Victorian and Tasmanian branches that the federal executive has sacked them all and brought in the receivers.
The Victorian intervention began two years ago and will continue at least until after the next state election in November. The scandals around the blatant branch-stacking and fraudulent use of public money have drawn in the Premier, Daniel Andrews, and tainted a government already damaged by its crippling Covid lockdowns.
In Tasmania, the problem has been less about impropriety – though there’s a whiff of that too – and much more about political assassination of rivals and the ruthless exercise of raw, blind, careless power.
Both factions – Left and Right – are to blame, although the belligerents on the Right have lately been more blatant, more brutal and more electorally damaging than those from the Left. They have cost the ALP any chance of winning last year’s state election. And in the recent federal election, they cost Anthony Albanese two seats he badly needed and almost lost a third.
Belatedly, the federal executive decided it had had enough. After allowing the situation to fester for
The Right’s open, public onslaught broke in the first fortnight of the five-week campaign for last year’s state election. If these attacks were not specifically designed to ensure Labor lost the election – and that seems probable – it revealed an uncharacteristic level of political naivety in some very experienced figures.
But to understand what’s happened, we need some background.
Unlike the Byzantine factional structures of the Victorian ALP, Tasmania has just two groupings – Left and Right. By the time Jim Bacon’s government came to power in 1998, factional strife had been restrained by his firm leadership and a three-man kitchen cabinet comprising the Premier, Right faction figure Paul Lennon, and the Treasurer, David Crean.
Three Premiers followed Bacon after his resignation and death in 2004: Paul Lennon (Right), David Bartlett (Right) and Lara Giddings (Left). Each espoused a single project which helped to end their careers. For Lennon, it was a pulp mill and the forestry wars. For Bartlett it was an upheaval of the education system that later had to be reversed. Giddings – and the government – were destroyed when, having been panicked by conservative Treasury officials that the state was running out of money when it wasn’t, handed down a horror budget in 2011 that shattered party unity and plunged the state into recession.
That 16 years of Labor government achieved, in the end, not much. But as it slowly fell apart, the Left rose to a level of power it had not experienced before. The faction controls a majority of branches and around 70% of delegates to the annual state conference. Left-wing unions provide a large proportion of party funds.
DEVOURING THEIR OWN
The Left leadership, under faction convenor Tim Jacobson, has been strong and tightly organised – sometimes, too tightly for its and the party’s good. The fate of Tasmania’s most popular politician, Lisa Singh, is a prime example.
She began her career with the left-wing Australian Education Union in Hobart, became a Labor left senator’s adviser, joined Emily’s List and was convenor of the Australian Republican Movement.
She was elected to the Tasmanian House of Assembly in 2006 and, the following year, abstained from the vote on Paul Lennon’s ill-fated pulp mill project. At the election in 2010, Labor suffered a 12.4% swing against it and was thrown into minority government. Singh lost her seat but, just five months later, became the first Australian senator of south Asian descent.
But still she refused to join the faction.
So, when Malcolm Turnbull called a double-dissolution election in 2016, the Labor factions relegated Singh to the last place on the ALP ticket. Ahead of her were all of the party’s other sitting senators and a little-known union leader and Left faction heavyweight, John Short.
Short received 1,214 primary votes. Singh got 20,741 and was returned to Canberra. Because it had been an election for all senators, the quota needed for election was cut by half. And those on the bottom half of the list were elected for only three years rather than the usual six.
In 2019, with quotas back to normal, her task was all but impossible. Although Singh was the only Labor candidate who could have won from the difficult third spot, that went again to Short. He got 1,217 primary votes; she got 19,984. This time, it wasn’t enough. If the Left faction had allowed her to take the third spot, the result may have been different.
Just 16 months later, Dr Seidel resigned from the party and from politics after savage and reckless factional warfare had consigned Labor to yet another humiliating election loss. “I did not sign up for this,” he told journalists.
WAR BREAKS OUT
Political parties often function reasonably well despite the factions, though seldom because of them – and only if there is a workable accommodation between the main players. When that breaks down, the whole party becomes chaotic and unelectable.
Ever since the Giddings Labor government lost power in 2014, the Left pursued a take-no-prisoners strategy against the Right. There were genuine concerns about social policy – Right MPs had voted against decriminalising homosexuality in 1997, abortion rights in 2013 and euthanasia in 2017 and again last year.
Although these matters had been written into the party’s platform by the Left-dominated conference, they are hot-button personal issues for both sides of politics, and conscience votes were granted. But the Left launched stinging attacks on the Right, including in public on the conference floor.
There was no need. All these reforms passed into law anyway. The Right’s numbers, either within the party machine or in the parliament, usually ensured the Left’s policies prevailed – even when there was genuine policy difference, which there usually wasn’t.
In the lead-up to the last state election – called by the Liberals a year before it was due – the Right had a star candidate for preselection, a high-profile suburban mayor. They saw him a future leader, eventually replacing a wounded Rebecca White.
Just why Dean Winter was so utterly unacceptable to the Left remains unclear. There were certainly some real policy concerns. But it was also in the Left’s interests to stop a Right-wing rival who might beat them to the leadership.
When the Right hit back, it was brutal, calculated and lethal.
The most recent chapter of this unedifying saga began when power within the Right moved from Helen Polley, a longtime socially conservative senator, to a young union official, Kevin Midson. He has the backing of senior Right figures, including former Premiers Paul Lennon and David Bartlett.
The party’s state president, Ben McGregor – a leading Left figure – was running for the Hobart seat of Clark when he was accused of sending an “inappropriate” text message several years before to a former girlfriend. He insists it was an innocuous joke. But the state leader, Rebecca White, moved against him and described him as unfit to hold office. The ALP federal executive sacked him from the presidency; Mr McGregor threatened to sue Ms White and the female complainant.
All this took up the first two weeks of a five-week campaign. It ended any chance the party might have had of gaining office.
Labor dominated the campaign in the final three weeks with a policy to reform the state’s ailing health system. The policy was developed by Dr Seidel, the former federal president of the Royal Australian College of GPs who had won a former Liberal upper house seat for Labor. It was not enough to negate the factional fallout, but it prevented the electoral defeat being even more devastating than it was.
Rebecca White, having led the ALP to two election losses, was replaced by a longtime rival, the Left’s
From what we can discern, his behaviour was flirty but did not amount to harassment: unwise, perhaps, but hardly a hanging offence. And he is adamant that she had shown every sign of friendship and affection whenever they had met in the 14 years between the alleged events and the complaint.
But Rebecca White, now back in the top job, called publicly on him to resign from Parliament. Two other high-profile rivals of O’Byrne’s, former premiers Paul Lennon and Lara Giddings, went on radio together to urge the same.
After the election was lost, Dr Seidel resigned in disgust. “I have tried to work constructively to solve some of our issues in our party, but have come to the realisation that I have failed,” he said. “I can’t work in a toxic environment and I can’t work with people who constantly leak information to the media out of pure selfishness.
“I don’t enjoy political infighting. Compared to others – I actually don’t get a kick out of it. It is sad and depressing and too often I felt like I was a dispensable pawn in somebody else’s stupid game. I did not sign up for that. My community and my electorate of Huon did not sign up for that either.”
His seat has now gone to a conservative independent aligned to the Liberals.
Labor went to the 2018 Tasmanian election with a policy of removing poker machines from pubs and clubs. It spurred a million-dollar-plus campaign in favour of the Liberals, backed by Federal boss Greg Farrell and the Australian Hotels Association.
But the party’s stance has changed diametrically. They are now even stronger backers than the government of the gaming industry and supported a new 20-year agreement that, while watering down Federal’s monopoly, also halved their tax rate.
But the party was in no condition to fight the federal election. The party’s biggest donor, the Left’s Health and Community Services Union, disaffiliated and at least 20% of the budget went out the door with the union. Immediately before the election, other Left unions including the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union, the Maritime Union and the CFMEU – defied ALP rules to endorse the independent Local Party rather than federal Labor candidates.
The federal result in Tasmania was predictable: a statewide swing of 6.3% against Labor. Bass and Braddon, the two northern seats it had hoped – and badly needed – to win swung to the Liberals. And Labor almost lost a seat, with a 4.3% swing against the sitting member in Lyons.
IS THERE A WAY BACK?
Doug Cameron and Nick Sherry will be in charge of the party organisation until after the next state and federal elections, both due in 2025. As part of the deal they, and not the factions, will preselect candidates.
This presents the opportunity to significantly reshape the parliamentary party. In 1998, the major parties tried to eliminate the Greens by reducing the House of Assembly from 35 members to 25. The Greens survived, but it made running the state almost unworkable. Each minister tries to balance as many as five portfolios. The government backbench consists of one person. In the past year, four Liberal ministers -- including the Premier -- have resigned from parliament, citing stress and untenable workload.
At the next election, the house will be restored to 35 members. Even if all nine current MHAs stand and win preselection, Labor could reasonably hope to gain at least three of the ten new positions. Properly done, it could be the beginning of the party’s revival and return to relevance.
Even if the administrators can restore some of the outfit’s credibility, it is still unlikely to win the state election. The current leader, Rebecca White, has led the party to two election losses and has failed to convince the electorate that she stands for anything much beyond her own survival.
But there’s no obvious replacement. Dean Winter is both divisive and untried. David O’Byrne is not only divisive but damaged, perhaps irreparably. The only other credible alternatives are in the upper house and out of contention.
Then there’s the immense problem of attracting good candidates. Why, given recent history and the likelihood of remaining in opposition, would a successful person with a strong and favourable public profile sign up? For what?
At the federal election, the Liberals’ Bridget Archer in Bass has positioned herself as an independent-minded dissident. By failing to dislodge her at the May election, Labor has allowed her popularity to blossom and given her the opportunity of cementing herself into that previously volatile electorate.
Braddon, covering the north-west and west, is a better bet. From its demographics, it ought to be a rusted-on Labor seat.
In 2025, Tasmania has a decent chance to deliver one extra federal seat. And that’s probably all.
It will take longer than three years to build a successful party out of all this wreckage.