Simmering issues within WA Labor are set to come to a head.
A move by WA Labor to bring forward an early decision on the re-endorsement of its sitting federal members, including the member for Brand, Gary Gray, has initiated the stoush the party inevitably had to have.
It is essentially a fight over the control of the Western Australian branch, which is reflected in its policies, and whether the party genuinely reflects the aspirations of members and supporters in the nation’s leading mining and resources economy.
The great anomaly is that, in what former Liberal prime minister John Howard once described as ‘Australia's most entrepreneurial state’, Labor’s decision making forums are firmly controlled by left wing unions. They don’t always see eye to eye, but when they do you can forget about debate; it’s take it or leave it.
The only other power block in the branch is the right faction, led by another union. In this case it’s the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association; but it needs one of the left unions to hive off on matters of special interest to have an impact.
The internal issues, especially over resources policies, have been simmering for some time. It has taken a tough, seasoned party member such as Mr Gray to bring it to a head.
English-born Mr Gray grew up in Whyalla in South Australia, and served as Labor’s national secretary between 1993 and 1999. He married Deborah Walsh, a daughter of former Labor finance minister Peter Walsh, and moved to Perth, where he became Woodside’s director of corporate affairs.
Elected in 2007, Mr Gray was promoted to the cabinet in 2013 as resources minister, where his generally pro-development stance, especially the use of foreign workers on resources projects, and support for the China-Australia free trade agreement, placed him offside with sections of the union movement.
Labor’s WA branch has generally been considered left dominated since it was effectively controlled by long-term party secretary F E (Joe) Chamberlain, whose reign ended in 1974. The left ascendancy continued until a period in the 1980s when right-wing supporters of then premier Brian Burke held the upper hand.
Factions were formalised in the mid 1980s, although their presence was not directly felt in the state parliamentary party until 1990. That’s when former minister Jeff Carr noted the factional intervention in a caucus ballot to fill a ministerial vacancy due to the unexpected resignation of Julian Grill.
In his book I Do Recall, Mr Carr wrote the Labor caucus adjourned so factional groups could convene privately to consider who should replace Mr Grill. He noted “this was a watershed moment in the way the Labor Party conducted its affairs.
“The realisation that a small group like the caucus, where members knew each other well, couldn’t vote of their own accord in the best interests of the party was a depressing thought,” Carr wrote.
The question whether WA Labor is in touch with the aspirations of Western Australians has increasingly been asked as the decline in general union membership, most pronounced in the private sector, has coincided with tighter union dominance within the party.
It’s not just the left that wields power. Remember when opposition economics spokesman and Victoria Park MP, Ben Wyatt, launched his leadership challenge against Eric Ripper in 2011? He was led to believe he had the support of the right faction. But he had not gone through the ‘correct’ back-room channels and the challenge collapsed.
Mr Gray has been the subject of a whispering campaign from the left for some years. As resources minister, he supported the principle of foreign workers on 457 visas working on Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill iron ore mining development. ‘I see Gray’s lining up a job with Gina for when he leaves politics,’ was an observation made to me of one of his then senior political colleagues.
The former national secretary, and guardian of the party’s rulebook, has provocatively refused to endorse some sections of his candidate nomination form, which requires blanket endorsement to follow WA party policies, and directions from the state secretary, Patrick Gorman.
His challenger is 28-year-old fly-in, fly-out Electrical Trades Union member Adam Woodage, an electrician on the Gorgon project. A ballot of branch members will occur on November 14-15, with more voting at the party’s state executive meeting on November 16.
The same timetable will be followed for the new seat of Burt, based on Armadale-Gosnells, where the former WA Law Society president Matt Keogh (right faction) faces strong opposition from another lawyer, Pierre Yang, backed by the left. Labor’s national executive could eventually make the ultimate decision in both seats.
But the unions can rest easy on one ballot. Retiring senators and former union officials Glenn Sterle (Transport Workers Union) and Sue Lines (United Voice), can expect to lead the Senate ticket for six-year terms.