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Theo Theophanous drops out of Labor Party preselection for the seat of Batman leaving only Martin Ferguson.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, finally the landscape, at least on one side of politics, is looking a little bit smoother. The Labor Party has managed to sort out its preselection brawl in the Melbourne seat of Batman being vacated by the former deputy Prime Minister, Brian Howe, and it is a result which appeared inevitable from the beginning, with the triumph of the high profile ACTU President, Martin Ferguson, over two candidates lesser known on the national political stage. Martin Ferguson is in our Melbourne studio, this morning, and Pru Goward will speak to him in a moment, but first, this report by Andrew Kalupous.

ANDREW KALOUPOUS(?): It's been a good weekend, indeed, for the hardened professional deal-makers in the ALP, the kind to make their political opponents in the west weep with envy. In the space of 48 hours they managed to pull the party back from a moment of crisis. And it started on Friday night with this announcement from aspiring MP, Jenny Mikakos.


JENNY MIKAKOS: Well, I have made a difficult decision to withdraw my nomination for the Batman preselection. I think it is the only way to resolve the deadlock that exists at present. I think that if I was not to withdraw my nomination we would proceed with national intervention. But I believe that there is now no reason to have national intervention, that this can be resolved ....

ANDREW KALOUPOUS: After five weeks of pressure to quit the Batman preselection race, secret negotiations to persuade Ms Mikakos to bale out had finally paid off. She did it, as they say, 'for the good of the party'. She didn't want, she said, the party to be damaged by the inevitable intervention of Labor's National Executive to install ACTU President Martin Ferguson in the safe seat. Of course, martyrdom has its price and in the case of Ms Mikakos its a virtual guarantee of support from the party administration for preselection in the future and its support for her when she contests the vice-presidency of the Victorian branch. In return, her factional support was transferred to Martin Ferguson giving him an estimated 80 per cent of the crucial central panel vote that would have decided the preselection.

With the threat of intervention still there, all this had left the third contender, State Labor MP and choice of the Socialist Left, Theo Theophanous to consider his position. And his supporters wanted to know what he was up to, as well. They found out yesterday at an extraordinary meeting of 200 Labor Party members called by the Batman Federal Electorate Assembly.

It was a gathering of mainly Greek Australians loyal to Mr Theophanous and his faction, reflective of the general ALP membership in Batman which has the highest concentration of Greek and other non-English speaking Australians in any electorate. The passion they have for politics was typified by the President of the Lebanese ALP branch in Batman, Nazir El Azmar, when he spoke to a motion condemning the National Executive's plans to intervene.


NAZIR EL AZMAR: Whoever thought that when we joined the Labor Party we would not be allowed to elect a representative of our choice was wrong. Today is the day you show loyalty to your party. Today is the day you don't interfere and impose a candidate. Let the people in Batman decide. Let democracy in Batman take place. The battle is not between Ferguson and Theophanous; the battle is between democracy and the ALP National Executive. Your power is from the people.

ANDREW KALOUPOUS: Save for his close family, Mr Theophanous had not revealed his hand since the Mikakos withdrawal. One of the meeting organisers told me they had no idea what he was going to do. Mr Ferguson was invited to the meeting, but didn't show. Mr Theophanous did. After all, this was a meeting being held in his name. But his supporters were to leave the meeting disappointed, some angry, but no more downcast that Mr Theophanous himself.


THEO THEOPHANOUS: There is no doubt that a decision by the National Executive tomorrow to intervene in the Batman preselection to install Mr Ferguson would damage the party. In the light of this, I have decided to announce to you at this moment that I am hereby officially withdrawing my nomination for the Federal seat of Batman.

I am sure that many of you .. please, please. I want you to know that in taking this decision that I am not betraying you. I am not doing anything other than what circumstances have forced upon us, given that we all love and are committed to the great Australian Labor Party. It is our party and it is we that who, in the end, must make the sacrifices for it. On this occasion it falls on me, on your behalf, to make the biggest sacrifice of all.

Finally, I'd like to thank my wife who has stuck by me throughout this and to thank you for your tremendous support. Thank you.

PETER THOMPSON: A tearful Theo Theophanous announcing his withdrawal from the preselection race for Batman. Andrew Kalupous compiled that report.

Well, now to the victor, Martin Ferguson, and Mr Ferguson is talking now to Pru Goward.

PRU GOWARD: Martin Ferguson, congratulations, but how welcome do you feel in Batman?

MARTIN FERGUSON: I think it is only going to be a question of time. I have a capacity to work with people. I have proven that in the trade union movement over the last 20 years, and especially as President of the ACTU. Irrespective of one's political views it is a question of working with people and respecting them for what they represent.

PRU GOWARD: But obviously Jenny Mikakos and Theo Theophanous have both made it clear they've stood aside unwillingly and that meeting, yesterday, that we've just heard a little of, just talks about the illegitimacy of the methods used to impose you. Now, how are you going to overcome that within those branches?

MARTIN FERGUSON: Basically, I have to attend to my branch work. You know, preselections come and go and I've been involved in some in the past where people I've supported have lost, and that is the nature of the preselection process. I really have to get involved and develop a local grass roots campaign and prove to those branch members, some of whom I might say telephoned me yesterday and congratulated me on the fact that I will now be their representative. But it is a matter of getting involved locally and working with those people because ....

PRU GOWARD: But you agree there's a way to go to heal a few wounds, isn't there?

MARTIN FERGUSON: Without a doubt, but it is no different to what occurs, from time to time, be it in a sporting organisation or a church organisation or a political party. There are always contests and one's ability, as a party, to heal the rift after the event is a test of the strength of the party.

PRU GOWARD: Will you live in Batman?

MARTIN FERGUSON: Yes, Tricia and I have indicated to the local electors that we are prepared to move into the area. It is now a matter of working those issues through and trying to do it as quickly as possible.

PRU GOWARD: Now, you've announced, also, that you are going to be part of the overhaul of the Left in Victoria. What does that mean?

MARTIN FERGUSON: A range of people who supported me have basically said: Look, this preselection's important for you. It is also important for the future of the Left. A significant number have felt alienated from the Left over recent years and that is reflected in the fact that, for example, good unionists such as Gary Mayne, from the Electrical Trade Unions are now in a group that has split off from the mainstream Socialist Left. They have asked me to make sure that I am prepared to involve themselves in trying to develop some unity and in doing so to create a Left that is about participation rather than a small group of people running it from small back room offices.

PRU GOWARD: Right. So, you would say the Left, in the state that it is at the moment, has it cost Victorian Labor seats? I mean, has it been a problem?

MARTIN FERGUSON: I don't think its cost Victorian Labor seats. But I must say, when you've got a major force in the Labor Party such as the Left divided and it doesn't contribute to policy development, nor does it strengthen the party at a grass roots level, I think it is acknowledged by the Right and in other States where the Left is is the majority position, that you must always ensure that there's a process which guarantees all in the party - and it is a broadly-based political party - an opportunity to participate and to ensure that they are represented in all policy forums and at a parliamentary level. And one of the problem in the Left in recent years in Victoria is that a significant group has felt alienated and therefor left the mainstream Left. It is about bringing all of us back together.

PRU GOWARD: Now, I wonder how difficult this is going to be, now, because in some senses your victory is the result of the support from the Right. I mean, how willing is the Left going to be to let you heal it, if you like, when your big supporters were the Right?

MARTIN FERGUSON: I had support across the political spectrum. Of course, they had some support from Right. They respected and acknowledged the assistance I had given them, industrially, over a number of years. But I also had a significant support base, in the Socialist Left trade union grouping in association with some support, even before last Friday evening, in what's called the Labor Left or the Pledge group. So, I'm pleased to say my support was broadly based including rank and file support amongst some of the delegates to the central panel from the local Federal electorate councils.

PRU GOWARD: How well do you think your efforts to be conciliatory in Batman - how well will they be affected by your moves, now, on the faction as a whole?

MARTIN FERGUSON: No, I'm not living on the faction. I'll be merely part of a process aimed at establishing some unity in the Left in Victoria, and in doing so, I think, not only strengthening the Labor Party in Batman, but also developing a better Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party because the Right in Victoria does not want a 'winner take all' situation. It wants the capacity to negotiate with the Left, a Left that speaks with one voice. In recent years the requirement to negotiate with two sections of the Left has not been to the advantage of the party or the overall process of grass roots activity in Victoria.

PRU GOWARD: Mr Ferguson, just a couple of quick ones. Do you expect Independent Labor candidates to run against you?

MARTIN FERGUSON: I would hope not because in the end I think Phil Cleary's got to face up to the fact that his real enemy, if he's a so-called person who's committed to the working people of this State, are not in the Labor Party, but in the Coalition. I think people in the Labor movement would be more influenced by whether or not he's prepared to find an Independent candidate, for example, to run against Mr Costello, or Mr Reith, because they're the people who've got no commitment to the people he supposedly speaks for, the low income working class people. So, I think he ought to re-examine his position.

PRU GOWARD: Right. So, you don't expect that?

MARTIN FERGUSON: I would hope not.

PRU GOWARD: And to your immediate future: do you expect Jenny George to replace you as President at the next ACTU congress in September, or do you expect to keep your position until the time of the election?

MARTIN FERGUSON: The position in the ACTU, as occurred with myself and Simon Crean, is that you hold the office and then take leave of absence once an election is called. And therefore I would remain as President of the ACTU until an election is called. I would then expect the ACTU, in accordance with the rules, to call nominations, and I think Jenny George is the hot favourite to be elected unopposed as President of the ACTU.

PRU GOWARD: Martin Ferguson, thank you for your time this morning.

MARTIN FERGUSON: Good morning and thank you.

PRU GOWARD: Martin Ferguson, President of the ACTU and now the endorsed Labor candidate for the seat of Batman.