Bill Shorten under pressure to intervene after frontbencher Lisa Singh preselected behind male union official in Tasmania
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Bill Shorten under pressure to intervene after frontbencher Lisa Singh preselected behind male union official in Tasmania

Labor leader Bill Shorten's commitment to recruit and promote quality women within the parliamentary party has been contradicted by the decision of the rogue Tasmanian branch to demote one of the federal opposition's brightest female stars in favour of a faceless male union official.

And it's all down to factions.

Tasmanian senator Lisa Singh, pictured during an estimates hearing at Parliament House, has signed the "pollution free politics pledge" being pushed by green group 350.org.

Tasmanian senator Lisa Singh, pictured during an estimates hearing at Parliament House, has signed the "pollution free politics pledge" being pushed by green group 350.org.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The situation has brought forward a call for federal intervention to overturn the selection order of Labor's Senate candidates.

Mr Shorten is in Tasmania on Saturday to address the Tasmanian ALP's state conference.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, pictured with his deputy Tanya Plibersek, has set a goal of having women make up half of Labor MPs within 10 years.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, pictured with his deputy Tanya Plibersek, has set a goal of having women make up half of Labor MPs within 10 years.

Photo: Andrew Meares
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But it appears his lofty ideals of dramatically increasing the participation of women in politics have been ignored in a faction power-play which will end the federal career of Lisa Singh - arguably the state's highest profile Labor figure - while elevating yet another union official.

The telegenic 42-year-old frontbencher is a regular contributor to the national political debate and is a proven media performer in her capacity as shadow parliamentary secretary for the environment, climate change and water.

But quality and merit are have proved no defence against the factional warlords who saw fit in June to install the little-known Australian Manufacturing Workers Union secretary, John Short in the third spot on the party's Senate ticket, behind the Left's Anne Urquhart and the Right's Helen Polley.

The factionally unaligned Senator Singh, who was the Hobart Citizen of the Year in 2004, was allocated the unwinnable 4th spot, signifying the end of her federal career unless the ALP's powerful national executive intervenes to change the order.

Former Tasmanian senator and Hawke government minister Margaret Reynolds is appalled that Senator Singh has been shoved aside because she lacks factional and union support.

Noting that federal intervention had been required to protect her and fellow minister Susan Ryan in the past, she said that was what was required now unless the party wanted to be exposed as paying lip-service only to affirmative action and the higher representation of quality women.

"She's done extremely well, she's a leading frontbencher, and frankly, the only person we really hear from in Tasmania, and there is another frontbencher in Julie Collins and another senator but Lisa just has that capacity to be out there and noticeable," she said.

Ms Reynolds said it was now up to the federal party to act. "When factions just divide up the spoils between themselves, to the detriment of the image of the party and the potential for government and the potential for maintaining numbers in the Senate, it becomes a federal responsibility."

She's done extremely well, she's a leading frontbencher, and frankly, the only person we really hear from in Tasmania.

Senator Singh did not comment for this story but fellow frontbenchers expressed disappointment and in one case outright contempt for the preselection process.

Another lamented the outcome but said it had been technically correct.

"If it were based on merit and profile, Singh would be at number one or no lower than number two, but this was an election in the party, and, as I understand it, it was done within the rules," said the colleague on the condition of remaining anonymous so as not to offend other MPs.

In July at its National Conference, Labor made much of its superior record of promoting women and Mr Shorten used his keynote speech to set the new goal of ending the gender divide by having women make up half of all Labor MPs within ten years.

Currently women make up just over 40 per cent of Labor's caucus - significantly better than the Liberals on around 23 per cent.

But critics say the test of such commitments is in the tough individual calls noting that a man has just been selected for the WA Canning by-election, and that Senator Singh's demise would be a loss of another woman, and one with strong credentials at that.

Fairfax Media has been told Mr Shorten is privately unhappy at the loss of one of his team's rising stars but it is not clear if he will use his authority to have the decision overturned.

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Mark Kenny is the national affairs editor for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House