THE problem with getting rid of dead wood is that it’s bloody tricky to cut down and can take out the things around it when it falls.
This is the tightrope challenge facing ALP head office – how to prune back a state caucus long past its use-by date and present the freshest possible face for a first term in opposition without setting off yet another internal power struggle.
Sam Dastyari, the ALP’s youthful general secretary in NSW, has the unenviable task of tapping some of the hardest heads on the shoulder to free up the few remaining safe Labor seats, mainly in Sydney’s west and the Illawarra.
Last week’s internal polling, which showed Labor can expect less than a quarter of the primary vote in March, merely underlined what the Penrith byelection revealed – State Labor is unpalatable to voters in its current shape.
The dire forecast, which would see Labor reduced to little more than a rugby league team in number, has renewed the urgency for a thorough clean-out ahead of the March election.
Sussex Street, by tradition, will not brandish the knife openly but the names of those on the hit list are no secret. Blacktown MP Paul Gibson heads the list, along with long-serving Richard Amery in Mount Druitt, Wollongong’s controversy-prone Noreen Hay and Tony Stewart in Bankstown.
The problem for Dastyari is that all of those MPs mentioned are entrenched in their electorates, with fantastic margins that not even a crushing swing could snuff out.
Amery has been in Parliament since 1983, Gibson since 1988.
Gibson has no intention of stepping aside and has said he would run as an independent to muddy the waters in Blacktown if he were pushed. Amery told me recently that he was weighing up his options, believing the party could still be blessed with a “different landscape” after the federal election than the current polling suggests.
Amery draws strength from leading a faction of Labor MPs known as the trogs but that may count for little in March.
Noreen Hay’s strength is her talent for raising funds for the party.
The chief bag man is also the biggest headache: Joe Tripodi. He may be loathed by some but Tripodi is an undeniable force at the centre of the party and, by the Machiavellian standards of state politics, a loyal servant of Labor.
This may save him from the midnight knock at the door. The noises out of Sussex Street have been that Tripodi needs to think about his own future.
An ALP insider said: “The problem for Joe is that politics has been his life, he wouldn’t know what to do without it.”
Don’t put it past head office to make him find out if the polls don’t get better soon.
Maybe Phil can get Sussex Street to sort out George, Ross, Chris, Steve, Ruth, Lianne, Annette and Trevor. Odds on they could clean them out in no time.