Labor/Liberal party branch stacking nothing new

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Victorian Labor MP Somyurek (Image via Twitter), Prime Minister Morrison (Screenshot via YouTube) and former Prime Minister Turnbull (Screenshot via YouTube) have all been linked to branch stacking incidents

From Turnbull to Morrison to Somyurek, branch stacking has been a feature of the political landscape for decades, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

POLITICS entails the quest for justice. At least this was the view of the French intellectual and Gaullist politician André Malraux.  But its practitioners, notably when they come together in the tribal setting of a political party, do not necessarily think in those terms. To get into parliaments, deals are done, alliances and enemies made en route. Along the way, rules are bent, regulations sometimes torn.

And so it came to pass that the Victorian Labor Party, thumpingly confident in State office, riding high with the combating of the coronavirus, felt invincible. It was invincibility that was hubristic. Victorian State Minister for Local Government, Adem Somyurek was found wanting after recordings were made of comments made inside the office of Federal MP Anthony Byrne. 

Given that Byrne acts as Deputy Chair on the Federal Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Somyurek might have been on guard. In a subsequent statement, the Federal Member for Holt welcomed 'investigations into corruption, which has no place in the party I love'.

The recordings served as ammunition for a Nine investigation, including a 60 Minutes feature and article in The Age, in which Somyurek’s operations are discussed.

'Beneath the bravado and deal-making of a chronically ambitious politician,' wrote Nick McKenzieSumeyya Ilanbey and Joel Tozer in The Age, 'is a self-described "stackathon" that has funnelled hundreds of fake members into local ALP branches, to seize control of large sections of the Victorian Labor Party and become a powerbroker with unrivalled influence.'

Allegations are thick and extensive. The powerbroker allegedly forged signatures and created dozens of false statements in which Labor branch members are said to have paid for their memberships when, in fact, they had been covered.  Disparaging remarks are made about colleagues. Victoria’s Minister for Women Gabrielle Williams is dismissed as a 'stupid bitch' whom he will 'fucking force … out of the ministry'. Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation Marlene Kairouz’s position was created to merely give the impression 'we’re interested in the suburbs'. Not even Premier Daniel Andrews is spared, being dumped upon as a liar and 'c**t'.

Within days, the Victorian Ombudsman and the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) launched "Operation Fortescue" to investigate the claims on referral from Premier Andrews. Government ministers started falling like ninepins. In Somyurek’s wake came the resignations of Assistant Treasurer Robin Scott and Kairouz. Somyurek apologised for offensive remarks made but denied being the master puppeteer of branch stacking. Given the nature of the controversy, such denials are affirmations in another dress.

“I recruit people to the Liberal Party. I’m entitled to recruit support from wherever I choose.”

~ Former PM Malcolm Turnbull

With speed, the ALP’s national executive decided to intervene in the Victorian branch, arguing for a problematic suspension of voting rights of the state branch till 2023. This gives the national executive the power to determine pre-selections for the next state and federal elections. Former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks and former Federal Labor frontbencher Jenny Macklin have been appointed administrators of the state branch. 

Two reports are expected: an initial scoping study due by 31 July and a final report with recommendations of remedy and reform by November 2020.  According to Federal Labor Leader Anthony Albanese, such a broad audit, which was similarly done in the New South Wales branch, can be constructive in addressing the issue.

The question not being asked is how standard such behaviour is when it comes to matters of preselection and important internal party decisions. It is a feature of the Australian political landscape, a law of unnatural selection. The Australian Labor Party is the subject of interest, but such behaviour is inherent across the tribal instincts that govern the country’s political bodies. 

Former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sees it in terms of factionalism, which he regards as “an enemy of our democracy" that "should be put to death”

There is much to merit this claim that factions exist on their own accord and reward a certain type of operative:

“They are simply the machinery in which talentless men … grubby their way to the top.”

Another incentive to encourage such stacking comes from declining membership bases. Geoffrey Robinson is keen to single out the ALP as an example“The infrastructure of party and union branches that once underpinned politics in Labor heartlands has collapsed. The factories are gone and Labor branches have in most cases shrunken to a few ageing true believers.”  But this is merely part of the problem, and finger-pointing in the direction of Labor is convenient, particularly for conservatives casting stones in the large glasshouse that is politics.

Designating the Somyurek implosion as a matter of Labor DNA ignores a condition that marks the function of Australian politics, notably in the major parties.

In 2003, Malcolm Turnbull was accused of branch stacking in the Liberal Party preselection for the seat of Wentworth. Indeed, the future prime minister turned the entire affair of recruiting extra membership for his cause on its head. His opponent, the then incumbent MP Peter King, should merely have regarded such moves as “competition”, a vital part of “democracy”. 

And so it went that Turnbull’s supporters multiplied, reaching 800 at the Point Piper Liberal Party Branch.

Turnbull said

“I recruit people to the Liberal Party. I’m entitled to recruit support from wherever I choose.”

Old Malcolm could cut throats with the best of them.

Four years later, the Liberal preselection for the Federal Seat of Cook was invalidated by executive fiat following claims of branch stacking. The battle was particularly acrimonious, featuring sabotage, recrimination and even court action. In the field of candidates are familiar names, including current Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Immigration Minister David Coleman.  Initially, victory was claimed by the tenaciously ambitious Michael Towke, who polled a touch over ten times as many votes as Morrison. Liberal apparatchiks were appalled: Towke, being a Lebanese Australian, would be representing the Liberal Party in the seat of the Cronulla riots

A strategy was hatched to destroy Towke’s candidacy. He was accused of mendacity (what a shocking attribute in a potential MP), his creditability questioned. Towke’s victory was said to have been attained on the back of a membership drive for the Miranda branch of Cook. It was subsequently claimed that he had suggested the raising of $30,000 from candidates, including Coleman, to fund a branch-stacking operation in that branch. A Sylvania resident, Vincent Whitefield, was specifically named as having been paid to join the party. The Liberal executive ordered a second ballot, overturning the grassroots decision and effectively giving the preselection to a certain Scott Morrison.

In 2019, the NSW Liberal Party found itself mired in branch-stacking allegations involving pupils from Campion College, a private Sydney Catholic college. This brazen measure centred on offers of parliamentary and electorate office jobs to students on the proviso of recruiting members, ostensibly to oust sitting Federal MP, Alex Hawke

As one student recalled from a meeting he attended, organised by the Young Liberals, two organisers told those gathered:

"We need membership, you really need to join because we need to stack the party and roll Alex Hawke.”

For his part, Somyurek is seeking legal advice on what legal remedies he has regarding recordings which he argues were obtained illegally. 

“It is illegal to eavesdrop in Victoria, that is not subject of controversy, as I am advised.” 

Victorian State Labor MP Tim Richardson also found the act of recording such deliberations in a Federal MP’s office repugnant, especially given the fact that the member in question is also Deputy Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

“We don’t know who put those recordings in, we don’t know what has been compromised.” 

Educated guesses are being made and the culprit is very likely unsettlingly close to home. 

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar and is an Independent Australia columnist and lecturer at RMIT University. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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