The power behind the PM – who are Labor’s powerbrokers in government?

Since Anthony Albanese became prime minister and Labor has taken government,the make-up of Labor’s caucus has changed.

Twelve MPs won new seats – 11 in the House,one in the Senate – and another seven people replaced MPs who have retired. The net result was an expanded caucus that has grown from 94 to 103 people.

Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic,Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong,Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Trade and Tourism Minister Don Farrell.

Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic,Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong,Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Trade and Tourism Minister Don Farrell.Alex Ellinghausen

And that expansion has flow on impacts on who wields power overtly,through the holding of senior ministries,and covertly,through wielding power behind the scenes.

Sixteen months ago,The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age explored the influence and role that Labor’s Left and Right factions have in the modern federal parliamentary Labor Party.

The ratio of people from the two factions has not much changed – there are 48 MPs from the Left faction,up from 43 and 53 Right MPs,up from 49 as well as two non-aligned independents.

What has changed is that Albanese and his colleagues now have their hands on the levers of government.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will fly to Europe today to attend the NATO summit but he is facing trouble back home with angry crossbenchers not happy over staff cuts,Nine political editor Chris Uhlmann explains.

And while ministers and assistant ministers in the new government wield overt power in the Labor Party and the government,who wields power behind the scenes – people who have factional and institutional influence – is sometimes less clear,though there is significant overlap between factional leaders and ministerial portfolios.

After all,it’s the factional system that decides who gets to belong to the 30 member ministry that comprises 14 Left MPs and 16 Right MPs. And while the prime minister assigns portfolios,it’s factional conveners that get to hand out prized chairmanships of parliamentary committees,for example.

So who are the senior MPs that overtly wield power and influence as ministers,as well as behind the scenes in the Albanese government?

In the Left – Albanese’s own faction,though once he became leader he stepped back from factional politics to some extent – the two most important MPs are Penny Wong and Mark Butler.

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The Foreign Minister and Health Minister,both South Australians,are the prime minister’s closest political confidantes.

As one Left MP,who asked not be named,puts it:“The most influential are Butler and Wong by a country mile,they are closest to Albo and they can speak truth to power”.

At the top table,too,is Finance Minister Katy Gallagher,who has built a formidable partnership with Treasurer Jim Chalmers of the Right faction.

As another MP from the Left puts it,“she’s more influential than people realise. She’s very understated but Albo really listens to her and Penny relies on her in the Senate too”.

As one Right faction MP puts it,“the great achievement of Albanese was in dragging the party back to the centre after Bill[Shorten] drifted off to the left”.

At the mid-level there are up-and-coming Left faction ministers – Immigration Minister Andrew Giles,International Development and Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy,Agriculture Minister Murray Watt and Assistant Minister for trade and manufacturing Tim Ayres – who make important calls behind the scenes,and who are close to the leader.

A third Left faction MP sums up their roles like this:“Pat and Andrew have had Albo’s back for a while as former conveners of the faction,Tim is the party machine guy on the national executive and Murray is,basically,Queensland”.

Beyond these two tiers there are others with influence and who wield power in the Left,though they don’t necessarily command a bloc of votes in the caucus.

Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney,for example,“doesn’t go around twisting people’s arms,but she’s very loyal to Albo and they are personally close. Having Linda with you immediately gives you cred and authority” says that third MP.

And then there is Tanya Plibersek,who is not personally close to Albanese. Plibersek wields influence not because she is powerful in the factional machine – rather,it’s because of her experience and political smarts,and her popularity with the party’s membership and the public.

“If she says something or goes a certain way,people may go with her on certain issues. She has influence around the joint,” the first Left faction MP says.

Finally,within the Left,there are the three conveners of the faction who handle the distribution of committee chairmanships,chair meetings,decide who is appointed to overseas delegations and ensure MPs’ grievances are heard.

Sharon Claydon,Julian Hill and Tim Ayres were the conveners of the Left in the last parliament but Ayres is expected to step aside as he now has a ministry,with South Australian MP Karen Grogan – who is close to Butler and Wong – the favourite to take that position.

Housing Minister Julie Collins also has some influence,as the senior MP from Tasmania,while in Western Australia Sue Lines – who is all but certain to be the next Senate president – and Patrick Gorman have influence.

The Right faction is run differently to the Left – for example,the Left chooses its 14 frontbenchers from a national list of all its MPs,whereas the Right hands out its 16 frontbench spots according to a state-based formula – and its influence is distributed differently across the country.

South Australian MP Don Farrell,the Trade and Tourism Minister who has been dubbed “the Godfather”,is probably the most influential member of the National Right.

Farrell has the loyalty of five MPs in the state’s Right faction,has been close for years to the now SA Premier Peter Malinauskas (both men have deep roots in Shoppies,or Shop,Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association union) and his influence does not stop there.

He convenes the small states group of Right MPs from WA,SA,Tasmania,the ACT and the NT,and the increased size of Labor’s representation in WA,in particular,grows Farrell’s influence.

He also has the loyalty of MPs aligned to the Shoppies in the big states,like NSW Senator Deb O’Neill and Victorians Raff Ciccone,Cassandra Fernando and Daniel Mulino and most of all,he has Albanese’s ear.

As one Right faction MP puts it,“the great achievement of Albanese was in dragging the party back to the centre after Bill[Shorten] drifted off to the left”.

“Albanese has been able to do that as he decided it was the path to power and secondly,because he had the support of[Richard] Marles and Farrell to push in that direction.

“Faction leaders use their influence to protect the leader – so they know they can make difficult decision as they can rely on the support of influential people. It’s about trying to influence the direction of things without being seen to throw your weight around.”

Now the deputy prime minister,defence minister and the most senior member of the Victorian Right,Marles’ influence has grown over the last three years and with the election of a Labor government.

He’s worked at that,too,by bringing his support base – the Transport Workers Union – closer to the Shoppies union in Victoria,and by working with former senator Stephen Conroy,who remains influential in the southern state.

Marles’ influence has grown at the expense of Bill Shorten,who has fewer MPs aligned with him in both state and federal parliament than when he was opposition leader. Shorten,too,has lost some influence within allied unions – but he is still a force to be reckoned with,commanding respect around the cabinet table and within the broader labour movement for the force of his personality,his ability to communicate and his handling of the NDIS portfolio.

And then there is the NSW Right,which has styled itself (correctly) for decades as the “king-making” faction. On the raw numbers,the NSW Right sends more MPs to Canberra than any other state.

The two most influential members are Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen and Workplace Minister Tony Burke. Bowen has more MPs loyal to him within NSW including Education Minister Jason Clare and Industry Minister Ed Husic,which gives him influence,whereas Burke is closer to Albanese.

Chalmers,as mentioned,is the most senior member of the Right from Queensland,has grown closer to Albanese over the last three years – his performance during the election campaign boosted his standing – and he has an able ally and offsider in Anthony Chisholm.

Within the Right machine,as in the Left,the conveners have some influence too – and again,Farrell’s name crops up as one of the three conveners,while Matt Thistlethwaite and Raff Ciccone are the other two members.

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James Massola is national affairs editor. He was previously political correspondent for The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age. He won the Kennedy award for Outstanding Foreign Correspondent while posted in Jakarta and wrote The Great Cave Rescue.

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