The federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, is prepared to override local branches to determine who will run in the key marginal electorate of Parramatta, amid allegations of unresolved branch stacking in the seat.
The move to replace the outgoing MP, Julie Owens, comes as the party’s left faction splits over whether to allow a rank and file ballot, and as the right faction makes a bid for the seat, arguing it needs compensation after Hunter was given to the left’s candidate, Dan Repacholi.
The soft left, or “Ferguson left” named after powerbroker Laurie Ferguson, which controls branches in the seat, is pushing for a rank and file ballot, but their support is said to be split between Granville state Labor MP Julia Finn, and Durga Owen, who ran for the state seat of Seven Hills at the last state election.
Neither candidate is seen as acceptable to the federal executive, with Albanese’s hard left faction arguing for a federal intervention to install Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union legal director Abha Devasia unless the soft right comes up with a better candidate.
Other candidates understood to be in the mix include former East Hills candidate Cameron Murphy – the son of high court justice and Whitlam government attorney general Lionel Murphy – and Liverpool city councillor Charishma Kaliyanda.
It has been reported that the former state MP David Borger has knocked back requests to run.
The use of federal intervention powers would spark a backlash among local branch members who have been calling for a rank and file ballot to decide who will contest the key seat, held by Labor on a 3.5% margin.
In her valedictory speech to parliament, Owens paid tribute to the “remarkable” branch members in the seat who had supported her since her election in 2004 and said she had made clear to Anthony Albanese her preferred successor.
“Traditionally it is the branch members that choose who will stand for the election again, and they will decide who has the extraordinary opportunity to try to ask the community to give them the opportunity to represent them in this house,” Owens said.
“It is a role they take very, very, very seriously. They’ve been out there for years getting to know who in their ranks knows how to work, who is consistent, who is honest, who volunteers, who genuinely cares about the community, who has flaws that would negatively impact on their job, they staff the booths, they do it all and they know the branch members, they know each other very, very well.
“They are well placed to make a decision about who will represent Labor in the forthcoming election.”
But party figures say that systemic branch stacking in western Sydney remained a problem, pointing to the findings of an internal inquiry completed by Evan Moorhead in 2020 which recommended a two-year pause on rank and file ballots.
The Moorhead report found seven party officials – including Ferguson – had engaged in “unworthy conduct” by engaging in branch stacking with membership books routinely falsified.
Finn, who is in the same faction as Owens, resigned from Labor’s frontbench following the review for breaching party rules, but maintained she had done nothing wrong.
A “stalemate” over how to proceed with the Parramatta preselection will probably result in the NSW branch requesting federal intervention, as occurred in Fowler and Hunter despite the concerns of local members.
One party figure said a rank and file ballot would not be allowed to take place given the branches were still “rorted”.
“A rank and file preselection is untenable given the branch rorting and past indiscretions in the seat.”
However, another Labor source said it would be “very brave” of the party to risk upsetting local branch members in such a critical seat, pointing to the backlash in Fowler after the party decided to install NSW senator Kristina Keneally into the seat without a rank and file ballot.
The push by the right to also have one of their candidates considered by the federal executive was seen as an ambitious claim, particularly given Repacholi, who will contest the right-aligned seat of Hunter, was yet to formally join a faction.
Amid the jostling for Parramatta, the party’s administrative committee decided on Friday that a rank and file ballot would be held in the seat of Cunningham, the Wollongong seat being vacated by Labor’s Sharon Bird.
Alison Byrnes, a staffer to Bird and the wife of state MP Paul Scully, is expected to win the ballot.