Both the Victorian Liberal Party and Labor Party have been rocked by scandals relating to something called ‘branch stacking’.
The most recent scandal around the Victorian Liberal Party has already resulted in the resignation of political powerbroker Marcus Bastiaan, and implicates Liberal MPs Michael Sukkar, who is the Assistant Treasurer and Housing Minister, and Kevin Andrews.
Both MPs have denied any wrongdoing and ordered independent reviews into their staffing arrangements, but Labor leader Anthony Albanese has called for Sukkar to stand down from his position in the Government’s frontbench.
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But what is it? And why is it so bad?
What is branch stacking?
Branch stacking comes down to a few simple principles: ideology, power and control, according to ANU director of the Australian Politics Studies Centre Marija Taflaga.
“Branch stacking is effectively the practice of recruiting members into a political party that have no interest in actually supporting or participating as an ordinary member in that political party,” she told Yahoo Finance.
This can take several forms, such as paying for others’ party memberships enrolling them in districts they don’t actually live in, or signing people up without their knowledge.
The purpose of this is to build support for your particular faction to ultimately influence candidate selection and policy outcomes.
What ought to happen is that members join political parties because their views and values genuinely align with a party’s views and values.
“But what's actually occurred is people who wish to control a political party are effectively manipulating the rules by recruiting members who are not genuine affiliates of this political party who may or may not share these values, have no interest that this party picks real people in order to control outcomes,” Taflaga said.
Branch stacking is a problem because it compromises our democratic integrity.
“Political parties act as basically a democratic link between us as voters and the government – the Prime Minister, the executive,” she said.
“So political parties are effectively saying ‘we run democratic processes, we have genuine members, these people are regular everyday Aussies’.”
But this isn’t the case with branch-stacking.
“It's all about controlling outcomes to control who gets into parliament and what kinds of policy positions are preferred.”
Is branch stacking legal?
According to Taflaga, the laws around branch-stacking are administered at the state level – so it’s not technically illegal on a federal level.
But providing false information to the Australian Electoral Commission – such as lying about your address or falsifying signatures – is illegal.
However, each party has rules about membership that punishes members who are found engaging in branch stacking.
Who engages in branch stacking?
Those trying to wrest power from another candidate are more likely to engage in branch-stacking – but that may, in turn, threaten those who are left to defend their position.
“In the case of someone who is an incumbent, they’re less likely to engage in branch stacking unless someone is stacking against them,” said Taflaga.
What tends to happen is political players will reach out to minority, ethnic or religious communities in order to win their support, as was the case with Bastiaan.
Taflaga explained that the collapse of the Family First party was seized upon by the conservative faction of the Victorian Liberal Party as an opportunity to recruit new members in order to shift the ideological make-up of the Victorian Liberal Party.
The investigation also alleges that he directed electorate officers to recruit party members.
And a secret phone conversation revealed by Nine and The Age’s joint investigation reveals Sukkar said he wanted to “get rid of” some government MPs.
But electorate officers – who are taxpayer-funded – aren’t meant to be using their time this way.
“[They are] supposed to be helping people coming to the electorate with immigration requests, or navigate Centrelink. Instead of doing that, these people are allegedly spending all their time recruiting for the [Victorian] Liberal party, for this faction,” Taflaga said.
“They're not supposed to do that; they're supposed to help the local MP help his constituents.”
Branch-stacking allegations against Labor
The Victorian Labor party has barely thrown off its own allegations of branch stacking at an “industrial scale”, which saw three state Labor ministers leave over the scandal in mid-June.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews sacked Labor powerbroker Adem Somyurek from his cabinet over the matter, and then-Consumer Affairs Minister Marlene Kairouz and Assistant Treasurer Robin Scott, allies of Somyurek, resigned.
The steady decline in political engagement have seen Greens and independent parties “go after Labor in their heartland,” according to Deakin University senior lecturer Geoffrey Robinson.
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