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Shorten reinforces Labor unity

AAP logoAAP 22/09/2016 Paul Osborne, AAP Senior Political Writer

The sign read OneSteel Reinforcing.

It was the name of the business which hosted a visit by Bill Shorten and Kim Carr on Thursday.

But it could well have been the motto of the factional alliance which is holding the federal Labor party together.

The exit of Victorian Right powerbroker Stephen Conroy after two decades in parliament has put ALP unity in the spotlight.

The alliance between Conroy and Shorten (known as the "ShortCons") and Carr's Left sub-faction has largely kept the peace in Victoria, and in many ways nationally, but there is no guarantee it will last with Conroy outside the parliamentary caucus.

Evidence of the alliance's continuing strength, and the authority held by Shorten, will be how the Victorian branch resolves who fills Conroy's casual vacancy.

How Conroy's position of deputy opposition leader in the Senate is filled - potentially by South Australian Right powerbroker Don Farrell or veteran Victorian Right senator Jacinta Collins - will also shed light on the ebbs and flows within the party.

The Left maintains a strong position within the party, with Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong, Mark Butler and Anthony Albanese holding high profiles and spearheading the progressive agenda.

However, there remain some differences with the Right on issues such as asylum-seeker policy, and brutally factional preselection decisions such as relegating Lisa Singh on the Tasmanian Senate ticket.

Former Labor staffer and strategist Simon Banks, from consultants Hawker Britton, says the party's unity is built on much more than factions, even though they are significant.

Having to rely on arrangements between a broad range of sub-factional groupings, built around geography and personalities, would not be enough to keep a party like Labor stable and unified, he argues.

Banks says the key has been the ALP putting in a lot of work on policy and direction over the past three years, uniting members in a common cause.

"A phrase we've heard much of, but will hear much more in the future, is 'inclusive growth'," he told AAP.

"It's one that brings together the two strands of what Labor likes to focus on - growth, but in a way that is fair."

Overlaying that is Shorten's leadership style, which is very consultative, and the party's recent election performance which fell a fraction short of defeating the coalition, says Banks.

It doesn't hurt, either, that the Liberal party under Malcolm Turnbull has conservative and moderate streams at war with each other over a range of issues and pointing fingers over the near-fatal electoral disaster on July 2.

Banks believes Labor has more to do to broaden its constituencies but having internal cohesion and a central message gives the party a "good philosophical core to what they are doing".

Getting some state and local government wins under its belt will also be motivating for federal Labor.

NSW Labor achieved a strong result across western Sydney in the recent local government elections.

Shoring up support in these areas will be key to Labor's hopes of toppling the Baird government in 2019 and unseating Liberals in federal marginal seats.

The leadership turmoil within the West Australian Liberals this week, which left Colin Barnett wounded but still alive, has bolstered Labor leader Mark McGowan's chances of taking office in March 2017.

Labor could be in for a shock if Andrew Barr loses power in the ACT, which goes to the polls on October 15.

However, betting agencies give Labor a 65 per cent of holding onto the expanded 25-seat assembly after 12 years in charge.

A change of leadership within the party organisation, with the retirement of national secretary George Wright and likely replacement by Victorian branch secretary Noah Carroll, will inevitably see some changes.

Carroll, who hails from the Right faction, directed the strongly grassroots-oriented 2014 state campaign which unseated a one-term coalition government and propelled Daniel Andrews into the premiership.

Despite being in opposition, there's no doubting Shorten's steely resolve.

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