Flat White

Labor, Liberal, whatever: if you really want to stop the stacks, it’s time for party democratisation

17 June 2020

1:15 PM

17 June 2020

1:15 PM

As a general rule, I try to steer clear of commercial television. People crying over flopped souffle grates on my non-existent patience. But I’d been given the tip to watch 60 minutes on Sunday, and in my excitement, I accidentally saw four minutes of The Voice. Almost 72 hours later and after much thought, I’m not sure which I find more jarring: Kelly Rowland dressed like a big flailing blue vagina or allegations of rampant branch stacking in Victorian Labor. 

Kudos to The Age and Channel 9 for producing a rare and excellent piece of investigative journalism. Given the way sections of the mainstream media operate as mere stenographers for government, this was a refreshing jolt from the smug languidness of modern politics. While there were a couple of long bows drawn, the program mostly detailed compelling allegations of misconduct.   

This expose delved into the extracurricular activities of Victorian cabinet minister, Adem Somyurek, who is alleged to have orchestrated industrial-scale branch stacking, signed up fake members, encouraged forged signatures, referred to a female colleague as a ‘psycho bitch’ and to young ALP staffers as ‘little passive-aggressive f**king gay kids’.  

 Charming hey? Particularly from a senior figure in a political party which incessantly proselytises and criticises all us mere mortals on behalf of women, ethnic minorities and the LGBT community. I would howl with laughter at the hypocrisy if the behaviour wasn’t quite so contemptible. 

We have learned that The Age and 60 Minutes obtained over 100 audio and video recordings during this operation and I imagine the program was legalled to the hilt before it was aired. We are all curious as to how the surveillance came to be taken and how it was obtained by the media. I’m sure that will come out in the wash as those details are as important to the story itself. From a legal aspect, federal law makes it a crime to secretly intercept telecommunications, but in certain circumstances, enforcement authorities, agencies and journalists can obtain a warrant to take secret recordings. There are also different regulations across different states and territories about taping calls. Given the potentially criminal nature of some of these allegations, you would think care was taken to ensure material was properly collected to avoid the risk of it being found inadmissible in criminal proceedings. Anyway, watch this space – it’ll be a battleground. 

Now, for the fallout. 

Within 24 hours of the program airing, Somyurek was sacked, referred to the police and IBAC, and Dan Andrews had asked the ALP federal executive to expel him from the ALP. Two more ministers have since resigned and I have an inkling there will be more Labor figures walking the plank.  

Now, Somyurek is not some rogue backbencher accused of letting his teenage kid chew up data on his work phone – he sat in state cabinet and on the national executive, and is alleged to control 70 per cent of the ALP membership vote in Victoria.  The long-running, extensive and egregious nature of these allegations means more evidence will be unearthed and more MPs will likely wind up balls deep in this muck. It must be that others partook in, benefited from, concealed or otherwise condoned Somyurek’s actions. Those heads should roll.  

As for Dan Andrews, it is a double-edged sword: he either knew what was going on and let it happen or he didn’t know what was going on right under his nose. It is most likely the former, but neither reflects well on him as a leader. That said, if he can weather this storm, the removal of Somyurek and his allies will give Dan Andrews some clear intraparty air and probably a few more numbers.  

The gravity of this conduct points to endemic cultural issues within the Victorian ALP. A political sacrifice to placate the masses before the party machine rolls on just won’t suffice here. The Victorian ALP needs to clear house: an uncomfortable, embarrassing but necessary step if they want to have any hope of regaining the trust of voters and members. The proposal for the federal arm of the ALP to administer the Victorian branch shows major changes are afoot. Given the tribal nature of the ALP, expect the factional warfare to kick off and the retribution to be punishing. 

And I do feel for the ALP rank and file. If the allegations of branch stacking are true, then genuine members have been grossly disenfranchised by their own party. It’s all a massive slap in the face to those who give their time to make the party tick.  

While branch stacking breaks ALP party rules, the allegations of misusing public staff and soliciting forged signatures are potentially criminal. The involvement of IBAC, and likely the federal police, means the Victorian Police may have to get on board and divert some resources from fining people fishing on the Mornington Peninsula. And given the underwhelming slap on the wrist given to this government as a result of the Red Shirts scandal, all eyes will be focused to make sure these allegations aren’t stealthy brushed under the carpet  

More broadly, branch stacking, to some extent or another, happens in every political party, at every level of government, across the country. If you’ve been in and around politics for any more than 3.4 seconds, you’ll know this is true. If you don’t: you’re a liar, in denial, profoundly naive or uncommonly stupid. The current situation is just a particularly appalling example of something that occurs in party politics every day. It’s not right, it’s frowned upon, but it does happen.  

So, may I suggest the political class take note. For not only does sunlight disinfect, it can also bleach. If there was ever a time to democratise political parties it was last year, last month, last week, yesterday. Party leaders can’t bemoan falling party membership when members get no buy in or are wilfully disenfranchised. In a functioning democracy, political power cannot simply be held by a few brokers and meted out by their useful idiots.  

While that continues to be the case, we will have a subpar political class, that no one chose, and whom no one actually wants to vote for.

Caroline Di Russo is a lawyer, businesswomen and unrepentant nerd.

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