Labor has gone on the defensive over a last-minute campaign to undermine the credibility of its lead senate candidate in Western Australia.
Joe Bullock, the secretary of the conservative Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, was leapfrogged over sitting Labor Senator Louise Pratt for the top spot on the ticket for the WA Senate election re-run this Saturday.
This week has seen media reports of Mr Bullock’s 1996 conviction for assault, his record of voting for the Liberal party and a 2013 speech in which he railed against the dangers of Labor following “every weird leftie trend”.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott weighed into the debate on Friday, saying there was “division and dysfunction at the heart of the West Australian Labor senate team”.
“It’s proof from deep within the Labor Party that the Labor Party is simply not up to the job of government,” Mr Abbott told reporters in Canberra.
“I’m hoping that the voters of Western Australia are sufficiently engaged to be paying attention to this.”
Mr Bullock told reporters in Perth he did not vote Labor in 1975, but since joining the party three years later he had voted Labor.
He said the assault conviction had nothing to do with his union work and he regretted it.
“It was a long while ago. It’s not something of which I’m very proud.”
Mr Bullock said he was on the public record as opposing gay marriage – an issue strongly supported by Senator Pratt – and would exercise a conscience vote against it if legislation came to parliament again.
“These matters are conscience matters and the Labor party is a very insightful party in according its members the right to vote in accordance with their consciences.”
Senator Pratt said the ALP was big enough to cope with philosophical differences.
“Joe and I are members of the Labor party for good reason – we’ve got a lot more in common than we would ever have that is different because we both want to champion the rights of working West Australians,” she said.
Senator Pratt was not concerned for herself if she lost.
“What I don’t want to see is Tony Abbott having unfettered control over the Senate.”
Senior Labor MPs defended Mr Bullock as someone who had spent his life standing up for working people.
Frontbencher Anthony Albanese said the right-wing union official was a colourful character.
“I know Joe. He is very sincere in the view that he holds,” Mr Albanese told ABC radio.
“I know that if he is elected to the Senate tomorrow, as I expect him to be, he will stand up for working people in the national parliament.”
West Australians head back to the polls because 1370 votes went missing during a recount at last year’s federal election.
Mr Abbott said he expected a “much better performance” from the Australian Electoral Commission this time.