Backroom blokes in Wills faction fix

A week before a vote is cast, Labor’s faction and union heavies are close to securing preselection for the heartland seat of Wills to non-local and former security adviser Peter Khalil.

As earnest local members turned out to a candidates’ meeting in Coburg this week, factional chiefs were advanced on secret deals to deliver local voting blocks (stacks by another name) and union support to Khalil whose campaign strategist is right faction deal maker Theo Theophanous.

The deals leave two candidates, Khalil and former senator and Andrews government adviser Mehmet Tillem, firm favourites ahead of the remaining field of six.

Only a revolt by individual Wills’ Labor members can now challenge the deals, finalised late this week and based on promises of future seats and jobs.

The preselection comes at a difficult time, with leader Bill Shorten polling poorly, the Greens a growing threat, and Victorian Labor in turmoil over branch-stacking.

So Wills, a seat once held by Bob Hawke, is being viewed within Labor and beyond as a test of Labor’s internal democracy.

Not surprisingly, Shorten and his union base, the Australian Workers Union, have been keen to appear to be giving local members a real say.

Preselection is a two-tiered process, the first stage a ballot of local members, the second a vote by a central panel elected dominated by unions.

In fact, the AWU has already opted to support Khalil centrally. In return he has agreed to join the AWU and to consult the union about his choice of staff once in parliament.

But at the local level Khalil, a little known multicultural commissioner from Melbourne’s south-east, lacks personal support.

So a second deal has locked in local Kurdish and Lebanese voting blocks (also known within Labor as “stacks”) behind Khalil who is of Egyptian/Coptic Christian background.

The plan is that these groups – linked to neighbouring Batman MP David Feeney – will secure secure Khalil a local vote healthy enough for the AWU and allies to justify its support on the central panel.

In return, Fairfax understands, Feeney’s allies have been given vague assurances including about future jobs and seats.

At the Coburg meeting on Wednesday unaligned Wills candidate Josh Funder called for such factional deals affecting the preselection to be publicly detailed. He has refused to elaborate.

Fairfax understands the Khalil deals have infuriated fellow candidate, scientist and Shorten adviser Anna Maria Arabia. But she has also refused to comment.

Both Shorten and Feeney are determined to block Tillem, a Turkish-born Muslim, viewed by many as an archetypal Labor warlord and, therefore, the wrong type of candidate for such a high profile seat.

But if Khalil is shoe-horned into this seat through deals done by the AWU and the likes of Feeney and Theophanous, it will be difficult for Shorten to portray the Wills preselection as anything other than a factional fix by the backroom blokes that run Labor in Victoria.

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