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Labor hopeful stuns party with shock legal threat

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A preselection fight for Labor’s safest federal SA seat has taken a stunning turn, with one of the two nominees serving the party a legal letter claiming the campaign process is unfair and “anti-democratic” – and threatening Supreme Court action if her concerns are not addressed.

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Nominations closed for the northern seat of Spence on Friday, after incumbent Nick Champion confirmed his move – first reported by InDaily last year – to state politics at the March election.

The ‘Labor Unity’ Right faction that controls the seat has already endorsed Transport Workers Union official Matt Burnell for the plum preselection, but their plans have been complicated by strategic relations consultant Alice Dawkins, whose own nomination has forced a ballot of local members.

That will be held over coming days, but Dawkins – whose father John was a federal Treasurer under Paul Keating – last night stunned party powerbrokers by sending them a legal letter signed on her behalf by prominent lawyer Greg Griffin.

In a letter addressed to ALP state secretary and Labor Unity powerbroker Reggie Martin, Griffin – the former owner of Adelaide United – asserts “serious issues” with the election process, whose rules he slammed as “oppressive, anti-democratic, and inconsistent with the stated objectives of the ALP of encouraging rank and file participation in the preselection of candidates”.

He alleges the party has broken its own national rules dictating women must be preselected in half its winnable seats, with Dawkins demanding Labor “open or reopen nominations for all held federal seats” to rectify the breach.

The letter criticises the party for expecting nominees to adhere to its campaigning guidelines when they are not given them until after they have paid their nomination fees.

“We act on behalf of Ms Alice Dawkins, who has nominated for pre-selection for the seat of Spence for the next Federal election,” Griffin writes in the letter, seen by InDaily.

“Ms Dawkins has forwarded to us your email regarding the ‘Internal Campaigning Guidelines’. In this, you contend that by signing the Parliamentary Pledge in the context of her nomination for preselection, she agreed to be bound by the Guidelines as they constitute a decision of the State Executive of the ALP.

“There are a number of serious issues that arise if that is an accurate recitation of the position of ALP on this issue (the asserted position).”

…someone’s got to speak up when that process is polluted

Griffin insists the guidelines should have been “appended to the Nomination Form”, writing: “We are instructed that Ms Dawkins had no knowledge of the content of the Guidelines, you having handed her a copy after she lodged the executed Nomination form.”

“It is incorrect to assert that Ms Dawkins, or for that matter any member nominating for preselection, can properly be said to have agreed to a decision of the State Executive of which she was not aware until after she paid her $1000 Nomination Fee, and which should have been provided to her before she signed the Nomination form and not after, which is simply unacceptable,” he continues.

Griffin said his client was still awaiting key details from party HQ, including “a current version of the Rules [and] the roll of eligible voters” in the preselection ballot.

The roll, he said, was “to be made available to candidates” by today, with ballots to be distributed “no later than” this Friday, which he argues “narrows the effective campaigning period to three days”.

“The ballots to be returned by July 20, which provides a very limited time for voters to consider the merits of both candidates equally and return their ballots in a timely fashion,” he writes.

“The position of our client is to require the ALP put into place a procedure that is fair and reasonable to all candidates and not just her opponent… who is already within the Party system, has been publicly endorsed as the preferred candidate to be selected for the seat and has State and Federal Parliamentary offices openly assisting his campaign by providing electoral services to him.”

Griffin requests Labor’s state executive delays the distribution of ballot papers for three weeks “to address that unfair and jaundiced position”.

Griffin further alleges the party is in breach of its own national rules by failing to apply a mandated 50 quota of women candidates in winnable seats.

“If at the close of nominations for this group of seven seats there are not three women preselected, then nominations are to be reopened,” Griffin claims.

“This piecemeal approach to the calling of nominations prima facie conflicts with the National Rules.

“We therefore are instructed that our client requires the State Executive open/reopen nominations for all held federal seats and consider [Affirmative Action] across the group at the same time, and to abandon this piecemeal approach which is clearly open to manipulation and flies in the face of the fair democratic processes espoused by the modern ALP, and now enshrined within its Rules.”

Griffin argues the campaign guidelines “seem regrettably written to protect the party members from receiving communications from candidates rather than facilitating a process whereby candidates can initiate in-person contact with members”, such as via a ban on “doorknocking” prospective constituents.

“Our client [is concerned] that some sitting local members have provided a public platform to the other candidate already, and have… already been canvassing rank and file members on his behalf,” the letter states.

He says the various concerns raised highlight “an unfair, unwarranted and impermissible advantage to select candidates over rank and file members of the ALP seeking to exercise their democratic and contractual right, to use a good Labor expression, ‘to put their hat into the ring’”.

He says Dawkins has instructed him to issue Supreme Court proceedings if the concerns are not addressed by close of business today.

Dawkins told InDaily she was “completely aligned with and supportive of what Peter Malinauskas is attempting to do”, after recent rule changes committed to “empowering the grassroots of the party and fostering democratisation”.

“But someone’s got to speak up when that process is polluted,” she said.

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

She insists she is “not disgruntled”.

“I’m relentlessly hopeful about a democracy-driven transition towards member engagement,” she said.

“I’m advocating for the practices we’re meant to be doing.”

Labor’s internal ballot guidelines have already proved controversial in recent months, with a factional spat erupting late last year after candidates differed on how to interpret what appeared to be hastily-written new rules ostensibly designed to give ordinary party members the same influence on preselections as unions and sub-branch delegates.

InDaily is seeking a response from ALP state secretary Reggie Martin.

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