Branch stacking has been a problem across all political parties. Peter Wicks looks at ways to remedy Victorian Labor's current problems.
WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT a journalist presented with video evidence, audio recordings and details of corruption within the Labor Party would have investigated and presented the story?
For some, Nick McKenzie's report for 60 Minutes and the age of factionalism within the Victorian branch of the ALP was a sure sign of him being partisan. Some saw an even bigger conspiracy, that somehow Peter Costello had sought 60 Minutes to come up with this story so it would impact the Eden-Monaro by-election.
If Nick McKenzie had ignored the evidence and not followed the case, then that would have been a clear case of partisanship. A journalist doing their job isn’t. Those who are jumping up and down about McKenzie or 60 Minutes are misdirecting their anger. Their anger is best placed at the actors pretending to be genuine members and their factional directors who tell them how and when to vote in internal party elections.
Those who are active in Victorian Labor have known about the antics of Adam Somyurek for years — if not, they have been living under a rock.
There are Labor members that are devastated about this blowing up and there are those that think it is a good thing. For the record, I fit into the latter category.
Those who have followed my ramblings for a while may be familiar with my writing on the antics of branch stackers in NSW over the years. Fair to say I’ve had my share of threats and legal letters, but ensuring genuine members have a chance to be heard is crucial. Currently, they are shut out by factional numbers.
Branch stacking is the bane of any party’s existence and stacking by factional players should be called out and exposed.
Don’t think it’s just the Labor Party, though.
All the larger parties have a history of dealing with factional stacking.
The Greens saw an ugly factional brawl during the Batman electorate pre-selection where Alex Bhathal was forced to deal with bullying and branch stacks that didn’t want her as a candidate for the 105th time or whatever it was.
Lee Rhiannon also had to deal with the rival conservative faction of the party coming after for her last two terms in the Senate. So factional is the NSW branch of the Greens, they can’t even decide on a leader.
Just recently, the Greens celebrated Lidia Thorpe replacing Richard Di Natale in the Senate. This was after a party vote where 62% of Greens members voted to have a say in who was appointed senator. Unfortunately under Greens rules, the 38% wins and the factions got to choose their senator, a former MP who was voted out of Victorian parliament by an electorate that was so disappointed in her she didn’t even get a “new members honeymoon” period.
Lucky the vote on marriage equality didn’t work the same way as the Greens version of democratic process given it came in at 61.6% “yes”.
When it comes to the Liberals, they have the bragging rights of introducing ethnic branch stacking in Australia. This now notorious method of branch stacking was the lovechild of former NSW MP David Clarke and former Nazi war criminal Lyenko Urbanchich. Clarke was an upper house MP who led the ultra-conservative faction of the Liberals for decades. He retired and didn’t stand at the last election but is still hugely influential. Over the years, he has had an involvement in some ugly Liberal pre-selections such as those of Alex Hawke and even Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
But at the moment, it’s all about Labor.
I was amazed that when I joined Victorian Labor, after attending one branch meeting to confirm my membership and the first time I’d met anyone at that branch, I then had complete voting rights for life without ever having to attend another branch meeting. Ever. This means I could vote in pre-selections for candidates that I’ve never met or spoken to.
Any attempts to change this ridiculous rule were voted down by the Right. To me, anybody that doesn’t support members attending at least three meetings to have voting rights has an agenda.
There are three key factional groups in Victoria’s Right and although one is called the “Industrial Left”, they all vote together as a block. Any member of any part of Victoria’s Right is a part of the problem.
That is not to say members of the Left don’t also stack branches — some do, however it is not at the industrial scale employed by those in the factional groups on the Right.
The good news is that there are drastic steps being taken to address the issue. The federal branch has intervened and has effectively shut down the Victorian branch until all members can be assessed as genuine and found to have paid for their own membership. The bad news is that this could take three years.
During this time, Victorian party members will have their voting rights stripped, which means all pre-selections will be cancelled and candidates will be selected by National Executive from members who have nominated.
This is highly problematic — National Executive is heavily weighted towards the Right and there are members who are factional plants after being voted in at the National Conference. The National Executive is voted for by party members, a large volume of which are stacked members whose votes are filled out by someone from a faction, so I don’t see how the National Executive choosing candidates improves anything.
In fact, when the Right doesn’t get their way because a genuine local candidate is vastly more popular than the faction's choice, National Executive is often called on to select the candidate rather than letting the members choose their own.
One example of this last election was the federal seat of MacNamara. Over 500 members were eligible to vote in a pre-selection, but instead a dodgy pseudo-vote was held. Around 100 members were selected by the factions to take part, other members were not invited or turned away at the door on the night — I know, I was there. The chosen 100 voted, that result was put forward by the faction to National Executive, the Executive rubber-stamped the decision. One hundred had a say, 400 missed out — that’s the Victorian Right’s version of a democracy.
The Victorian factional group with the numbers on National Executive are the Right factional rivals of the Somyurek group. They are also the architects/negotiators responsible for splitting the Left to form their now allies in the Industrial Left.
It is believed this was done to wrestle back control from Somyurek’s Right Faction, as well as to weaken the Left. With that failing, we now find ourselves in our current position.
Make no mistake, this is a hostile takeover of the Victorian branch. Not by the Left as some are trying to assert, but by another sub-faction of the Right.
This sub-faction also includes some notorious branch stackers. One branch that is interesting is the Caulfield branch. This branch, despite having a large membership, struggles to patch together a quorum for meetings. It is so bad that more often than not, their meetings are held as joint meetings with the also heavily-stacked South Caulfield branch, yet still they struggle to get a quorum.
I hope these are high on the list of branches that Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin put the broom through.
While a national intervention is needed, there are suggestions that I would make.
I think if Victorian members have their voting rights stripped, as they have, the same should apply for Victorian members of the National Executive.
In fact, I would go even further and say the National Executive should not have any Victorian members on it until all the stacks are cleaned out and a new vote has taken place for Victorian members of the Executive.
It would be ridiculous to claim to have no faith in the memberships voting in Victoria with the one exception being the vote for National Executive.
To include Victorian members in the National Executive indicates a refusal to clean out any undue influence in its national office. The Labor Party’s National Executive needs to be beyond reproach and while it has Victorian members, it isn’t.
Another suggestion I’d make is that National Executive dissolve all of the current committees in Victoria, particularly the Administration Committee. This committee is supposed to ensure party rules are followed, however, from all reports it has become a three-ringed sideshow. Not only does it fail to enforce rules, but many have also claimed it ensures the Right are never held to account for breaches of party rules.
This week, it was reported that Premier Daniel Andrews is banning ministerial staff from being in elected positions within the party. While this is a good initiative, it doesn’t go far enough. Every minister has both ministerial staff and electorate staff. Electorate staff must also be included in the ban or there will be a hole in this ban big enough to fly a 747 through.
It also leaves a question mark over the staff of federal MPs and shadow ministers based in Victoria. My view is that all staffers should be excluded from elected party positions.
MPs have a say in caucus, they don’t need staffers on committees to have their views heard.
There are some in the media who will point the finger and accuse Labor of being unlike any other party.
They are currently the only party that acknowledges the issue and implementing drastic steps to fix it, taking a broom to the membership. That makes them unique.
Other parties are using their broom to sweep the same problems under the rug.
Peter Wicks is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Federal Labor Party staffer. You can follow him on Twitter @MadWixxy.
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