Branch stacking’s a symptom of the two-party system

Branch stacking’s a symptom of the two-party system

11/11/2021

During the current IBAC probe one Victorian MP made a less than wholesome observation about the lawyers conducting the investigation, describing their conduct as akin to virgins, unsure what they are looking for.

This observation was not only unfair, it reflects the fact that the sort of behaviours that may shock the public and legal fraternity are often considered either acceptable or a reality of political life.

Former Supreme Court judge and current IBAC Commissioner Robert Redlich who is currently investigating branch stacking and use of public funds for political purposes.

Taxpayers rightly profess themselves shocked and appalled by allegations their hard-earned cash is funding the factional work of political parties.

Particularly the dark art of branch stacking, a term which describes the creative tactics used by party operatives to recruit members and influence outcomes. It can involve such dodgy deeds as signing up the dead or paying the membership fees of unwilling party members to manipulate decisions.

But I will let you in on a little secret. Few close observers of politics suffer the shock or outrage of the public or those exposing them. Instead, they are more interested in just how entrenched the problem is, and how to engage in such "recruitment" without getting caught.

This is not an argument in support of branch stacking or the misuse of taxpayer funds, nor am I suggesting every politician is involved. It is merely an explanation as to why it continues at alarming levels in both major parties despite decades of reforms and leaders from both sides promising to stamp out the problem.

Few close to politics feel the shock or outrage of the public or those exposing politicians who engage in branch stacking.Credit:Jim Pavlidis

The current probe by Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission has so far led to the resignation of four Andrews government ministers and cost federal MP Anthony Byrne his position on parliament’s powerful intelligence committee.

If the price for getting caught is so high, why does it continue to flourish? To put it simply, it works.

Branch stacking is, in many ways, also a symptom of the two-party system.

It was former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam who said; “… anybody who’s interested in improving matters which are determined by the constitution or by acts of parliament should join the Labor Party or the Liberal Party and try to do something about it. Because, as far ahead as we can see, the Prime Minister of Australia will be a Labor man or a Liberal man, or woman; but otherwise you’re just treading water or spouting into thin air if you say that you can change things other than by supporting the Labor or the Liberal Party.” And he was right.

Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar whose electoral practices are currently being examined.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Independent candidates and MPs might be having their moment in the sun, but to be in government, politicians must align themselves with a major party. Government is not an individual sport.

Power within these party structures comes from building a supporter base. Charismatic MPs with a natural magnetism may entice recruits to sign up or convince members to follow their cause.

But, for the rest of them, a simple alternative is to manipulate party memberships to influence outcomes. A tactic that can be particularly effective in small branches where a handful of votes can secure outcomes.

From time to time, these outcomes are subjected to scrutiny, but only when a disaffected party complains.

While branch stacking is not illegal, it is against party rules. And it is against the law for taxpayer-funded staff to engage in party political work while being funded by us.

Federal minister Michael Sukkar has found himself caught up in allegations that he was aware his friends and political allies were being paid by taxpayers to undertake party work to boost his factional base within the Liberal Party.

Within political circles there is an acceptance that some electorate office staff might, from time to time, find themselves replying to an email from a branch member or engaging in some small party matters while working on the public dime.

So, it doesn’t seem like a stretch when political staff, many of whom don’t have enough office work to fill their days, chase some party membership fees or start to engage in factional work.

It reflects a mindset by some politicians who see taxpayers as already picking up the bill for their staffing, communication, transport, travel and salaries and fail to see the problem with public funds being misused in this way.

The latest anti-corruption probe will deter some MPs, but it is unlikely to eradicate branch stacking and other dodgy political practices.

More optimistic political observers believe many of these issues could be addressed if more ordinary Australians signed up to political parties, thereby minimising the impact of branch stacking and reducing the need for taxpayer-funded staff to engage in theses dirty deeds.

In reality, these scandals do little to entice people to join political parties and instead reinforce the idea that members are taken for granted and parties remain the domain of political operatives who regard the free-thinking members as a nuisance.

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