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Another branch stacking scandal shows the practice is not just about numbers: in both parties, it is about furthering conservative agendas. By Mike Seccombe.

How branch stacking drags policy to the right

Marcus Bastiaan and Michael Kroger at the football.
Credit: Facebook

“Kevin Andrews under pressure to quit over branch stacking allegations”.

It’s a headline that could have appeared this week on a story about the Christian right’s efforts to seize power within the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party, except it didn’t.

It actually appeared atop an article that ran more than four years ago, on May 8, 2016. The story beneath had notable similarities to the account of far-right-wing zeal and dirty tricks revealed in the Nine media this week.

The 2016 story in The Australian reported that an electoral staffer in Andrews’ office engaged in alleged ethnic branch stacking – it was members of the Macedonian community that time – then took the rap and quit after the scheme was discovered. It is against the law for electoral staff to do factional work.

The timing was fortuitous for Andrews. The day the story appeared, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull called the 2016 election. The factional manoeuvrings were papered over for the appearance of unity, but they never stopped.

Four years on, the finger of blame has again been pointed at Andrews’ staff. According to documents and recordings revealed in the Nine exposé, factional operatives were allegedly given taxpayer-funded jobs in Andrews’ office, where they worked on stacking conservative members – this time heavily skewed to recruiting from the Indian community and the Mormon faith.

Allegedly, they operated on behalf of youthful hard-right powerbroker Marcus Bastiaan and the federal assistant treasurer and minister for Housing, Michael Sukkar. The ultimate goal was to remove as many as four state and six federal Liberal parliamentarians, and replace them with people loyal to the Bastiaan–Sukkar faction.

Since the story ran, Bastiaan has quit the party. Sukkar has issued furious denials, saying he “never authorised taxpayer-funded staff to undertake party political activity”.

And Kevin Andrews, as he did four years ago, has denied knowledge of any such activities in his office. He referred the allegations about his staff to the secretary of the Department of Finance for review, and affected the wounded dignity of the parliament’s longest-serving MP.

“The suggestion that I would be coerced into making decisions on staffing arrangements in my Electorate Office by others is untrue,’’ he said in a statement. “… As ‘Father of the House’ my integrity and my reputation mean everything.”

 

Numbers mean everything in political life, and they are the reason branch stacking is a problem on all sides of politics. It is becoming a bigger problem as party memberships shrink, thus making it easier for a relatively small group to assert control.

“Why do you branch stack?” asks Anthony Whealy, QC, a former justice of the New South Wales Court of Appeal and chair of The Centre for Public Integrity, an independent think tank comprising senior legal figures and dedicated to preventing corruption in Australian public life.

“You do it because you want to get a certain outcome. It might be preselection, or it might be a particular policy that you’re going to get the numbers on, and you can only get the numbers by fabricating the numbers.”

It may also be motivated by the quest for power for its own sake, or retribution against intra-party enemies. In any case, says Whealy, “It distorts what should be the objective of any political party, which is to represent its supporters.”

The Bastiaan–Sukkar faction provides a particularly stark illustration of Whealy’s point. A key aim of the group was to impose its version of “Christian” morality. They were – or are – anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage, anti-Safe Schools. They are by any definition extreme social conservatives. Back in 2016 one of their number, Stephanie Ross, now Bastiaan’s wife, gave an interview in which she voiced her opposition to abortion even in the case of rape. At the time she was seeking preselection in the Victorian state seat of Narracan.

The reason the Bastiaan–Sukkar faction went after those four Victorian MPs, the evidence suggests, was to exact revenge because they voted for the state’s voluntary assisted dying bill – that is, euthanasia.

But Australians overwhelmingly favour euthanasia, carefully implemented, and have done for a very long time. Many opinion polls over many years suggest between 75 and 90 per cent support. To cite just one, a Newspoll in 2012 found 82 per cent in favour nationally. Support was strongest in Victoria, at 86 per cent, compared with 11 per cent of people opposed.

It is everyone’s right in a democracy to advocate for a minority position, of course. But it is quite another matter to plot retribution against those who hold the opposing view and to use illegitimate means in the process.

Says Whealy: “André Malraux said politics is the quest for justice. And branch stacking is a great way to subvert the quest for justice.”

 

Whealy makes clear that it is not illegal to branch stack, unless fraud is involved. “On the other hand,” he says, “I think it can fall within the definition of corruption quite easily.”

Quite easily, but not always obviously, says Geoffrey Watson, SC, another director of The Centre for Public Integrity and former counsel assisting at the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.

“The point at which the line is crossed,” he says, “is not easily found.”

It can be quite legitimate for people with a particular ideological view or policy position or allegiance to a candidate to try to recruit like-minded people to their cause. Alternatively, people may be recruited although they have no abiding political interest and are simply used to make up the numbers.

Sometimes it’s not obvious. Take for example the epic recruiting effort undertaken by Malcolm Turnbull in pursuit of preselection for the Sydney seat of Wentworth in 2003. Some 800 people were signed up. His opponent, the incumbent member, Peter King, claimed it amounted to stacking. Turnbull defended it as democracy in vigorous action.

“The fact is that all of the people that have joined live in the area, all of them have paid their own membership fees,” Turnbull told ABC Radio at the time.

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

But, as Watson notes, many of those people, having achieved their objective, maintained no ongoing formal allegiance to the party. So was it a stack? It remains a matter of debate, because the usual signs were not there. “It’s obvious when you are paying people’s fees – paying them to join.”

Watson cites the recent example of Adem Somyurek, who was a leading light in the right wing of the Victorian Labor Party, and the minister for Local Government and Small Business in the Andrews government, until another Nine investigation in June exposed his involvement in large-scale branch stacking.

Somyurek is alleged to have registered local party members with false details, to have paid party membership fees and to have involved ministerial staffers in recruiting members.

In many ways, the allegations against Somyurek are similar to those against the Bastiaan–Sukkar faction.

For one, both operations targeted quite cohesive minority groups, says Watson. “What’s really excruciating is both of the parties manipulating ethnic groups: the Labor Party working over Turkish people; the Liberal Party working over ‘curries’, as they called them, the Mormons and right-wing Catholics.”

For another, it appears that what precipitated the leaking of the damaging material to the media was a falling-out between former factional allies. That is, the right ratting on the right.

But there also are significant differences.

“At least with someone like Bastiaan,” says Watson, “you can say that he did hold to some incredibly socially conservative views, which were at the forefront of his thinking.

“Tell me what Adem Somyurek’s political philosophy is. You won’t find one. It appears to be about power for power’s sake.”

Another difference is in the response of the respective parties to the allegations. In the Somyurek case, the matter was immediately referred for investigation by the state ombudsman and anti-corruption commission. Labor’s federal leader, Anthony Albanese, promptly announced a federal intervention in the Victorian branch. Scott Morrison, however, has resisted doing likewise.

One final point of similarity, though: in both cases the stacking involved right-wing elements of the parties. And while it is the case that all factions of all parties engage in the practice, recent history suggests it is more often the right that instigates it.

When this is put to Watson, he concedes there seems to be more instances of corruption of all types, including branch stacking, involving the political right. He also notes it has not been ever thus.

“If you go back 30 years or so, the Victorian left of the Labor Party was a very, very, very corrupt outfit.”

 

Anika Gauja, an associate professor of the department of government and international relations at the University of Sydney, suggests that in the case of Labor, the right is encouraged to branch stack by the fact that it represents a minority position among the party’s rank-and-file membership.

“I’d say there’s greater levels of participation in normal branch activities, and I put preselections under that category, [along with] participation in conferences – so delegations et cetera, from members of the left,” she says.

“When you join a party … you’d be mistaken to think that you actually had a voice over the development of party policy. Possibly 50 or 60 people make the key decisions. So it’s a process that’s easily open to manipulation.”

In Labor’s case, a number of close observers point to a major factor in that manipulation: right-wing unions, and one in particular, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, more commonly called the SDA or “Shoppies”, Australia’s largest private-sector union.

There is a long history there. Distilled down – harshly but not entirely unfairly – by Josh Cullinan, who heads the rival union the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, the Shoppies’ “purpose for the last 50 years has been … the enrolment of workers into the organisation, not for their interest as workers but so that the SDA could influence policy at a state and national level”.

The SDA cosied up to the big employers, he says, who encouraged their employees to join. The quid pro quo was that the Shoppies did deals that cost their members millions, if not billions, of dollars, and by virtue of this employer-facilitated mass enrolment, the union won great influence within Labor.

The Shoppies were long dominated – and still are – by right-wing Catholics whose social agenda is not that far removed from the likes of Bastiaan’s.

Cullinan has the evidence: the SDA’s 2007 FDA submission on abortion or its 2012 submission on same-sex marriage, and earlier submissions on IVF and stem-cell research.

He concedes the way the SDA exerts its influence does not fit the classic definition of branch stacking, but it operates in a similar way, by harnessing people by covert means to a political cause.

The reason Labor did not move support behind same-sex marriage, for example, until 2016, “was because the SDA was a massive handbrake”.

Bottom line, it’s not only the conservative parties that are under the sway of the religious right. But it’s a much bigger concern for the Liberal and National parties.

 

There is no better example of the influence of the religious right than the marriage equality postal vote. More than $80 million of taxpayers’ money was spent holding the ballot, even though it was abundantly clear what the outcome would be. Its purpose was to give cover to members of the right who wanted to support the change to marriage laws, on the pretext that they were fulfilling the wishes of their electorates.

And quite a number of them did just that. When it went to a vote in the house of representatives, only four MPs showed the courage of their convictions and voted no. Another 10 abstained. Among their number were Kevin Andrews, Michael Sukkar and Scott Morrison.

As Geoff Gallop, former Labor premier of Western Australia and now emeritus professor of public administration at Sydney University notes, this was evidence of Australia’s politics lagging behind the Australian community.

“Australia has moved, there’s no doubt, on marriage equality, abortion, assisted dying et cetera, way ahead of politics.”

But this is the reality the branch stackers refuse to accept, and the reason they consistently seek to change the numbers.

“When your world view is under siege and you’re losing, and … the archbishops are coming out saying society’s collapsing, you know, we’re going down the road to, you know, moral decay and all this sort of stuff, then you will be a bit inclined to be a little bit more extreme in your practice. Because you’re fighting for your truth. And that truth is being undermined by day-to-day support of the ordinary people for liberal ideas.”

It’s not limited to matters of personal morality, either. Gallop, Cullinan and others cite examples of the knock-on effects of religious conservatism in other policy areas.

Only this week we saw another example, after religious conservatives learnt that the production of a vaccine for Covid-19 involved the use of foetal cells. Our Christian right prime minister had initially announced it would be made available to all Australians, and even signalled the likelihood that it would be made compulsory. He hastily back-pedalled.

No matter that vaccines had been made in similar ways for decades. It was an example of a phenomenon widely studied in the United States – the tension between science and religion.

The reactionary religious agenda manifests in all sorts of ways, says Lindy Edwards, senior lecturer in politics at the University of NSW. It goes, she says, to a mindset that is backward-looking.

“It’s mixed up with protecting the status quo and defending incumbent power – whether it’s gender stuff, whether it’s gay stuff, whether it’s Indigenous stuff, whether it’s climate stuff et cetera,” she says. “In lots of ways it’s making our democracy function really poorly.”

Edwards says it is shifting the political contest from “the ballot box or the parliament to the party level”. And this is why branch stacking matters – not just for political gain, but to change policy platforms and to keep parties more conservative than the electorates they are supposed to serve.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2020 as "How branch stacking drags policy to the right".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.