A near Melbourne Cup field of 11 candidates has emerged to fill the vacancy of the Australian Labor Party’s first member-elected presidency.
Under the Simon Crean bid to reform the party, ordinary ALP members, of which there are said to be 50,000, will have the opportunity of electing three people to fill the post for the next three years.
The position will be shared over the period on a rotating basis, with the President, a senior Vice-President and a Junior Vice-President changing positions each succeeding year.
In the past, the ALP Presidency has been a largely symbolic backseat role, whose functions have included chairing the National Conference and the National Executive, as well as being a general spokesman for the party. It will assume a particularly important role over the coming months in the lead-up to the triennial National Conference in January – the first to usher in “grassroots” delegates.
After many years of stage managed events, an unpredictable affair could be in the offing.
The successful presidential triumvirate will also for the first time reflect the views and attitudes of the modern-day Labor Party membership, and by virtue of being a popularly elected candidate potentially assume a more powerful influence on the policy and direction of the party. The ballot will be held through October, with the results declared on November 14.
Among those who have thrown their hat in the ring are Barry Jones, who held the post for a near record eight years until 2000 when he was replaced by the incumbent Greg Sword.
Other frontrunners include ex-Western Australian Premier and Keating Government Minister Carmen Lawrence, ex-Hawke Government Cabinet Minister and now executive director of the superannuation funds industry, Susan Ryan, and Tasmanian left winger and ex-Labor frontbencher, Duncan Kerr.
Two other prominent figures on the list are Warren Mundine, an unsuccessful indigenous Senate candidate, and brother of Tony Mundine, boxer and rugby league star; Victorian MP Monica Gould, and Mary Easson, a well-regarded New South Wales right-wing party official and former federal MP.
One thing in the ballot is certain – under the ALP affirmative action rules – at least one woman will be elected.
If two men top the ballot – which is decided by optional proportional voting – the next highest woman will become the Junior Vice-President.
It is widely expected that Carmen Lawrence, despite her controversial and chequered career, will win a substantial proportion of the party’s feminist vote, and is considered an early favourite.
Though all candidates are supposed to be barred from campaigning, either paid or unpaid, Ms Lawrence has been using media opportunities, particularly on the ABC, to talk on “other issues” but gaining national attention at the same time.
Recently, Ms Lawrence appeared as a guest on the increasingly non-religious ABC program, Compass, hosted by the former Western Australian Geraldine Doogue.
The program featured a round-table discussion on declining moral standards in politics and the media, and the lack of engagement ordinary people had in the political debate.
Ms Lawrence had plenty to say and received more airplay than any of the other invited guests.
The program was basically a free and uncritical ad for Ms Lawrence’s credentials as the female “conscience” of the Labor Party.
Other candidates for the presidency, who are not such friends of the ABC, will not be so lucky with their coverage.
Many in the ALP are deeply worried about the message a Lawrence presidency would send and are hoping that candidates such as Mr Mundine, Ms Ryan, and the ever-popular Barry Jones will fracture her vote.
Discipline has never been Ms Lawrence’s strong point and many believe she would not hesitate to use her “mandate” from the party faithful to challenge the views of the parliamentary wing should they prove a problem. The party is heading for unchartered waters, and next month’s ballot will determine who will be at the helm.
Simon Crean wanted reform and a level of democratisation for the party, but he will be now be hoping that he will get a staid and trustworthy person in the President’s chair.
Carmen Lawrence’s election would be a monument to the failure of Crean’s plans to democratise the ALP, and, perhaps, fatally undermine his position as parliamentary leader.