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The Victorian supreme court has temporarily banned the federal Labor party from preselecting candidates for safe seats in the state, with lawyers representing ALP-affiliated unions accusing the party’s national executive of “preselection stacking”.

Nominations for candidate preselection in 21 safe federal seats in Victoria and one new seat opened on Tuesday and were due to close on Friday morning, in what some party members claim is a rushed process without precedent.

However, in a last-minute hearing, justice Tim Ginnane on Thursday night granted a temporary injunction on any finalisation of the process before 4pm on Friday, dashing plans for the national executive to have confirmed candidates in safe seats by early afternoon.

The Victorian branch of the Labor party is under the control of the party’s national executive after allegations of branch stacking were raised against former minister Adem Somyurek. He denies the claims.

The takeover has meant voting rights for Victorian party members who would ordinarily have a say in preselecting candidates are currently suspended– and decision-making power is instead in the hands of the national executive.

But a group of ALP-affiliated unions – including the Australian Workers Union, the CFMEU and the Health Service Union – and their members have taken issue with the speed of the process.

Figures within Labor are cynical about the court action and the temporary injunction, however, and pointed to the preselection battle for the newly-created seat of Hawke as the real reason for the legal action.

Sources told the Guardian the unions behind the legal challenge were previously aligned to Somyurek and, as a result of his fall, had lost preselection decision-making powers.

Ron Merkel QC, the barrister representing the unions, on Thursday told the court that “preselection usually takes a minimum of two weeks but a two to three-day setup, I’m instructed, is unprecedented”.

He said there was obviously an “ulterior purpose” for the hasty process, suggesting it was designed to achieve “as little competition for nominations as possible”.

Looked at objectively, it looks like preselection stacking justified by branch stacking which has got nothing whatsoever to do with any conduct or misconduct alleged against the plaintiffs.

As well as the federal takeover, Labor stalwarts Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin were appointed as administrators of the Victorian branch and a review of membership was ordered to ensure the rank and file are all valid and paid up.

Merkel said that process had ended in February, leaving no valid justification for “singling out” the 22 electorates three months later.

But Peter Willis SC, who is representing members of the national executive including the federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said the process was entirely conventional and unremarkable.

The Guardian understands the unions are angered by the preselection process for the newly created seat of Hawke – where former Labor state secretary and current PwC partner Sam Rae is the national executive’s preferred candidate.

The remaining 21 seats are considered “safe” seats where it’s expected the sitting members will renominate and face little or no challenge, the court heard.

Ginnane will hear more arguments on Friday.

This post includes additional reporting from AAP.


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