Branch stacking isn’t just about corruption — it’s a symptom of an outdated, withering party system

Marija Taflaga, Australian National University

In recent months, two investigations by The Age and the Nine Network have revealed allegations of branch stacking in the Victorian divisions of the Labor and Liberal parties. The scandals saw ministers and powerbrokers resign and investigations launched.

But what is branch stacking? At its most basic level, it involves recruiting members to a political party who have no genuine interest in supporting the principles or participating in the activities of that party. It can involve paying new recruits membership fees, falsely reporting addresses and recruiting people who don’t know they are even joining a political party.

By increasing the number of members in a given branch, the “stacker” can manipulate party decisions about candidate pre-selection and its internal governance bodies. These organs control the rules about how the party selects candidates, resolves disputes and governs its internal affairs.

As political scientist Anika Gauja explained, one way to reduce branch stacking might be to adopt the Queensland model of electoral commission oversight. By shifting responsibility and compliance to a third party, this could reduce the incentive structure for party operatives.

But branch stacking raises two broader questions about the health of our political parties and the way our political system operates.

The Labor branch stacking allegations resulted in several Victorian MPs losing their ministerial positions.
James Ross/AAP

Our parties aren’t as healthy or representative as they could be

The first is philosophical. It relates to why branch stacking is a problem for political parties in the first place — and it’s not just that it violates the parties’ own rules.

Australian parties claim to be democratic institutions that represent popular opinion, albeit shaped by specific political values and principles. In this way, they claim to be a vital democratic link between citizens and the elected elites who govern us, rather than a narrow group of power-seeking individuals. This is key to their claims of legitimacy.

Branch stacking undermines this claim, because it shows the selection of candidates is not always based on democratic principles, merit or representation.

Are the candidates who win the right to represent parties in government a true reflection of the values of the voters? It becomes harder to argue this point if the only way representatives got into power is because they ingratiated themselves with the right power-broker.

Read more:
Explainer: what is branch stacking, and why has neither major party been able to stamp it out?

The second question goes to the health of political parties. Australian parties have very low rates of membership (less than 2% of the population). Moreover, they are not required to publish membership numbers, despite receiving public funding.

As the recent branch stacking scandals demonstrate, manipulating party membership numbers and votes is far easier in institutions that have scant members in the first place. In small branches that are poorly attended, it only takes a few new recruits to shift outcomes.

Labor is pushing Scott Morrison to sack Housing Minister Michael Sukkar over the latest branch stacking allegations.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Better ways to bring citizens into government

While parties can take steps to try to boost membership and internal party democracy by giving members a greater say in selecting candidates, leaders and policies, it may also be time to consider system-wide institutional reforms.

With interest in joining political parties so low, placing the entire burden on parties to ensure robust democratic representation may be too much to ask.

There are multiple options that could help fix the current system. Some include increasing the overall size of parliament, creating more opportunities for people to run for office, or modifying the voting system to be more favourable to minority candidates.

Expanding the size of parliament can bring new opportunities for different types of representation, such as deliberative forums. This style of forum involves the recruitment of ordinary citizens to consider a specific problem facing society with the assistance of balanced, expert advice.

Citizens are given the opportunity to discuss and deliberate issues, potentially changing their minds. It was precisely this process that saw the historic removal of abortion laws in Ireland.

Read more:
Democracy is due for an overhaul – could lawmaking-by-jury be the answer?

Another option is to select a portion of our representatives by democratic sortition.

Sortition involves the selection of representatives by lottery, similar to jury duty. The advantage of sortition is that it is random and more likely to recruit from across the community.

Given this, careful consideration would need to be given to the exact number of members drawn by lot and how long we might expect citizens’ recruited this way to serve in parliament, given the disruption this may cause to their lives. Such a system could be combined with the methods of party-based selection that we use today.

No magic bullet, but clear alternatives

To be clear, political parties remain important institutions in our democracy and are likely to persist for some time to come. Further, none of these measures outlined above would be a magic bullet.

In fact, any of these suggested alternatives involve trade-offs, but they would all change our current structure which encourages recruitment of professionalised politicians from narrowing groups.

Ultimately, what the alternatives do offer is a chance to reconsider how we bring ordinary Australians into the political system again and to encourage a debate about what we want representation to look like in the 21st century in order to best renew our democracy.

Read more:
Labor’s branch stacking scandal is a problem for the whole party. Not just Victoria.

The Conversation

Marija Taflaga, Lecturer, School of Political Science and International Relations, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin installed to run crisis-ridden Victorian ALP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The ALP national executive has decided on sweeping federal intervention into the crisis-ridden Victorian ALP, in the wake of revelations of the alleged “industrial scale” branch stacking and threats by now former state minister and power broker Adem Somyurek.

Former state premier Steve Bracks and former federal cabinet minister Jenny Macklin will run the state branch and prepare reforms, while the ALP national executive will handle federal and state preselections.

The intervention follows Nine’s 60 Minutes and The Age revealing recorded conversations in which Somyurek boasted of his power over state and federal MPs, and of running massive branch stacking. He also used highly offensive language about a female colleague.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews sacked Somyurek from his cabinet on Monday, and two other ministers, Robin Scott and Marlene Kairouz, whose staff were allegedly associated with the stacking have resigned, while denying any wrongdoing. Somyurek quit the Labor party on Monday before he was due to be expelled.

The scandal comes at the worst time for federal leader Anthony Albanese who is fighting the byelection in the Labor held seat of Eden-Monaro, which is on a margin of under 1%.

Another complication for the federal party is that some of the secret recording was apparently in the electorate office of Victorian federal Labor MP Anthony Bryne, who is deputy chair of the powerful parliamentary committee on intelligence and security.

ALP national president Wayne Swan said in a statement after a national executive hook up on Tuesday night that Bracks and Macklin “will provide the national executive with recommendations on how the Victorian branch should be restructured and reconstituted so that the branch membership comprises genuine, consenting, self-funding party members”.

He said in developing their recommendations, the administrators would consult party members and affiliated unions.

“The conduct exposed in recent days is reprehensible and at odds with everything the ALP stands for,” Swan said. “The national executive takes these matters incredibly seriously.”

Andrews wrote to ALP national secretary Paul Erickson calling for profound reform of the branch, and asking for its members’ voting rights to be suspended.

“I have no confidence in the integrity of any voting rolls that are produced for any internal elections in the Victorian branch,” he said.

“Accordingly we must suspend those elections and begin a long and critical process of validating each and every member of the Labor party in Victoria as genuine, consenting and self-funded”.

All state officials and staff will have to report to Bracks and Macklin, who are appointed until January 31 next year. All committees are suspended.

All voting rights are suspended until 2023.

Bracks and Macklin will do a scoping report by the end of next month, including recommendations on integrity measures that are needed for the branch. By Novemeber 1 they are to produce a final report on the restructuring and reconstitution of the branch.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Labor’s branch stacking scandal is a problem for the whole party. Not just Victoria.

James Ross/ AAP

Geoffrey Robinson, Deakin University

Victorian Labor, the jewel in the party’s crown, has been thrown into crisis by the allegations of massive branch stacking.

A third state Labor minister has now left their position over the scandal that as engulfed the party in the wake of revelations by the The Age and 60 Minutes.

But with federal leader Anthony Albanese also facing questions about party culture, the scandal will not be contained to Victoria.

Declining membership facilitates branch stacking

On Monday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews sacked Labor powerbroker Adem Somyurek from his cabinet. This came after allegations Somyurek was involved in “industrial scale” branch stacking and used offensive language about a ministerial colleague.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews sacked Adem Somyurek on Monday.
Scott Barbour/AAP

As federal Labor MP and former academic Andrew Leigh has shown, the propensity of Australians to join formal organisations has been in steady decline for 50 years, and parties are a key example. Weeds have sprouted in these ruins.

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.

Read more:
Explainer: what is branch stacking, and why has neither major party been able to stamp it out?

Branch stacking is possible because Labor’s active membership is now so low they can be easily swamped by those “stacked” into the party.

Preselections for safe seats in state parliament are often determined by fewer than 50 votes at the local level.

We have been here before

Branch stacking is, however, not new.

During the Cold War, membership soared as left and right battled for control. But back then, it reflected real ideological disagreements that mobilised thousands. This popularisation sparked a catastrophic split in the ALP.

Today, Labor is not divided by deep ideological battles and as a consequence, its membership is much lower. As a further result, it is much easier to stack the branches.

With Labor as the dominant political force in Victoria, it is now mostly jobs – from lowly electorate officers to ministerial roles – that people fight about. The power of factional bosses rests on their ability to control access to these positions.

The need for change

The decline in the levels of Labor membership and the commitment of Labor voters have concerned supporters for decades.

Today, new political forces such as the Greens and independents are now going after Labor in their heartland. Even at the 2018 landslide victory of the Andrews government, the Greens retained three seats and independents mounted serious challenges in safe Labor seats.

The Greens are challenging Labor in heartland seats.
Penny Stephens/ AAP

One popular proposal has been to increase the rights of members, so they can have a greater say in how the party is run.

At the federal level and for some states, this has taken the form of direct ballots for parliamentary leaders.

This method was described by former ALP national secretary George Wright as “an outrageous success” in 2013, leading to an extra 4,500 members at the time. But some states – including Victoria – have not gone down this path.

Read more:
Explainer: what does the law say about secret recordings and the public interest?

Some have argued it would be better to give up the dream of building a mass membership Labor Party and instead allow all Labor voters, not just party members, to select candidates by an American-style system of primaries.

However, here, the likely outcome would be an even more media-centric politics, where political celebrities – such as Canadian leader Justin Trudeau – would communicate directly with voters. It is a weak shield against a populist right on the march.

Organisational reforms flagged

On Tuesday night, ALP president Wayne Swan announced former Victorian premier Steve Bracks and former federal frontbencher Jenny Macklin had been appointed administrators of the Victorian branch until the end of January 2021.

They will report on how the branch “should be restructured and reconstituted so that the branch membership comprises genuine, consenting, self-funding party members”.

So, organisational reforms are most likely in the short term. These could include banning the payment of membership fees in cash as well as a proposed audit of party membership.

But in the absence of a larger and engaged membership, organisational reforms will always be subject to evasion. The highly-centralised pre-selection system in Victorian Labor provides an incentive to stack, but reform of this would disrupt the delicate factional balance within the ALP.

The political fallout

The branch stacking scandal also presents political opportunities for Labor’s opponents.

For the Greens, this latest scandal offers the opportunity to challenge Victorian Labor’s progressive image. In the short run, the Andrews brand is strong enough to ride out the loss of less talented ministers, but one day, the political tide will turn. The collapse of the once all-conquering NSW Labor Party is a cautionary lesson.

The branch stacking scandal is an unwelcome distraction for Anthony Albanese ahead of the Eden-Monaro by-election.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

At a federal level, it drags Albanese back into mire of Labor politics and undercuts his attempt to present him as an inner-suburban everyman – unlike former leader Bill Shorten, who could never escape his identity as a political hack.

If Labor loses the forthcoming Eden-Monaro byelection, this is something all Labor MPs, not just the Victorians, will have more to worry about.

Albanese most of all.

Read more:
Eden-Monaro byelection to be on July 4

The Conversation

Geoffrey Robinson, Senior Lecturer, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.