Beginning the election year on a surge of support that has brought her within striking range of the Opposition, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has triggered a new row within her party by axing a long-serving Senator to make way for an Aboriginal candidate.
Gillard overrode the Labor Party's Northern Territory branch to replace Senator Trish Crossin with Olympian Nova Peris, federal Labor's first indigenous woman candidate.
If elected, Peris would become the first federal female Aboriginal MP and only the fourth indigenous MP to serve in Canberra.
But the decision has infuriated many within Labor, despite wide support for electing more Aboriginals.
Gillard, making what she called a "captain's pick", consulted neither Crossin nor the NT branch, and told the 15-year veteran senator on Monday night, before announcing the move the next morning.
Crossin supporters accused Gillard of brutality and arrogance, and Crossin said yesterday that she would continue to fight for her seat even if Peris' preselection was confirmed.
The federal party executive was debating the move yesterday, but was widely expected to back Gillard. The NT does not have a voting member on the executive. The decision raised claims from within the party's left that Crossin was being dumped because of her support for former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in the leadership ballot that handed Gillard the top job.
But Gillard yesterday dismissed the claims, saying Crossin's support for Rudd was "completely irrelevant".
She told ABC radio she had expected a backlash, but that it was important for the federal party to "embrace amongst our numbers an indigenous Australian, an indigenous woman of incredible merit".
"This was about my desire to ensure that Labor had within its caucus an indigenous Australian," she said.
The parlous state of federal Labor as it heads into an election year - despite the recent upturn in the polls - means the Government will be fighting for every seat to survive.
It is in trouble in the NT, where indigenous votes swung away from its traditional Labor base in the Territory election last year, helping topush the Opposition Country Liberal Party into power.By Greg Ansley Email Greg