Victoria’s Labor government may have avoided a deeper investigation into the ‘extensive misconduct’ exposed by Operation Watts, but the damage to the party from its factional disputes can no longer be ignored. By Dennis Glover.

It’s time for Labor to dismantle its factions

The premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews.
The premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews.
Credit: Diego Fedele / AAP Image

Back in mid-October 2021 the entire active membership of the Victorian Labor Party seemed glued to its computer screens, following the hearings for Operation Watts – the investigation into factionalism in the Victorian branch by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) and the Victorian Ombudsman, which published its findings last week. Like me, many probably couldn’t decide whether they were watching a comedy or a tragedy.

The comedy was liberally supplied by upper house member of parliament Adem Somyurek, whose defence seemed to rest on the belief that branch-stacking was okay because, well, everyone was doing it.

After the findings were published, Somyurek said he was “exonerated” – a point rejected by the ombudsman – and tweeted that he was the “most scrutinized” MP in Australia.

The hearings resembled a tawdry, outer-suburban version of Watergate, featuring the B team from the local dramatic society, who made the whole thing hard to take seriously. Let’s face it, they weren’t revealing anything new: Victorian Labor’s factions were using people on the public payroll to stack their party and rort ballots.

The tragedy was provided by Somyurek’s young staff member Adam Sullivan. It was hard not to feel sorry for the poor kid. While he was spending his Friday afternoons pulling ballot papers from suburban letterboxes, his friends were kicking back at some cool Fitzroy bar, being young. How pointless. How idiotic.

When you’re barely out of secondary school, you’re easy prey for the type of cynical, pathetic manipulators who seem to be attracted to state politics like iron filings to a magnet. How sad that this has all been put on display again, when the election of a new and progressive Labor government in Canberra offers so much hope.

Maybe it has always been like this. Twenty-somethings flock to Victorian Labor in large numbers, full of idealism, only to have it savagely beaten out of them. Stop dreaming, kid, and lick more envelopes! I was Sullivan’s age myself once, and I remember what it was like.

During Sullivan’s testimony I told my son, a university student and Labor activist, to take note. “Get good at saying no to faction bosses,” I told him.

Now that IBAC’s findings are out, will they change anything? There’s hope, certainly. The major recommendations are actually quite sensible. The call for a parliamentary integrity commissioner to oversee the ethical behaviour of parliamentarians and their staff is long overdue. So is the creation of a new offence of directing paid staff to engage in party work. As everyone knows, when bad things happen in the Victorian Labor Party, a factionally active political staffer is seldom far away.

A question arises: In the absence of branch-stacking and ballot-stuffing, what are all these staff members to do with themselves? One of the tantalising revelations from the hearings was that Somyurek’s electorate office received on average just six constituent phone calls a month. That’s right, one-and-a-half a week. In this context it’s worth recalling that his electorate, and that of the federal MP Anthony Byrne, who also faced IBAC, covered some of the poorest suburbs of Melbourne, including former Victorian Housing Commission developments in places such as Dandenong and Doveton, with their long and sad histories of intergenerational disadvantage, unemployment, drug addiction and murder.

At the May federal election, Labor got less than 50 per cent of the vote in the Doveton booth for the first time. Its former MP tells me he regularly received 80 per cent of the vote there. Instead of movement building – as the Greens and teals are doing – Labor’s factions are wasting energy fighting each other. Small wonder that the party’s former heartlands are changing colour.

Could Labor actually lose the November state election? The hard heads have always contended that what happens inside Labor is of no interest to the voters.

This time, though, it’s feeding into a narrative of lockdown-related discontent that could cost it outer-suburban seats, a surge of Greens support that could cost it inner-city seats, and the potential arrival of state-based teal independents that could cost it middle-suburban seats. If the federal election is any guide, the independents will be campaigning hard on integrity. In this new electoral world, Labor’s factionalism may have serious consequences.

While the IBAC recommendations might work, they offer only a partial solution. Victorian Labor now has some serious work of its own to do to clean up its act. Premier Daniel Andrews has accepted full responsibility for the disaster and pledged to implement the report’s recommendations. Labor has dodged this job before, several times. This time it mustn’t.

So what must Andrews do?

His most important step is to accept that the real issue isn’t the branch-stacking. Stacking is a tactic, easily stamped out. The real issue is the continuing existence of the factions themselves. Factions are a long-term problem, slowly but surely destroying the party’s appeal and relevance. And they have never had more power. To put it simply, the factions need to be dismantled if Victorian Labor’s long-term internal and electoral problems are to be seriously addressed.

When the branch-stacking scandal first broke on 60 Minutes in 2020, the Victorian branch was immediately put into administration and all internal processes and voting rights were suspended. Since then, all preselections have been suspended, no state conference has been held and the Victorian branch has been run by a factionally balanced interim governance committee. It has been interim now for more than two years. A couple of energetic months might have sufficed.

Where once the Victorian branch was ruled by faceless faction leaders by means of manipulated voting rolls, today it is ruled by faceless faction leaders without any voting rolls at all. Unsurprisingly, they seem to like it this way and don’t appear to be in a hurry to change things.

I can’t imagine the new Labor government in Canberra is overjoyed at the embarrassment Victoria’s factions are causing them.

But even when voting rights do return, what will really change? If history is any guide, the Victorian factions will make new “stability pacts” and use their control of the party’s central organs to maintain the cosy status quo. Members of the party will have no real say, again.

You don’t have to think about the Victorian Labor Party’s factions for too long to grasp how utterly ridiculous and damaging they have become. Within the state party there now exist what are, to all intents and purposes, separate parties with their own convenors, executives, organisers, membership lists, bank accounts, rule books, binding caucusing, disciplinary procedures, youth wings, university clubs, magazines and so on. That’s not to mention the subfactions.

Given that the only logical reason for forming a binding faction in the first place is to distort the democratic process, no self-respecting democratic organisation would tolerate this state of affairs, would it? I can’t think of another social-democratic party in the world where binding factions are allowed to undermine their party’s democratic processes so blatantly and publicly.

Yes, factions exist elsewhere, but usually as informal organisations that enable members to coalesce around leaders and programs. The very idea that they might dominate their party absolutely, as in Victoria, would be considered ludicrous.

The insanity becomes even clearer when you consider factionalism’s cost: endless corruption, bad publicity, poor parliamentary representation and the effect these have on idealistic young people such as Adam Sullivan. Mostly, the factions just make party membership pointless and tedious.

It’s no wonder other political movements are springing up to attract the sorts of people who would once have joined the Labor Party but can’t stomach faction bosses telling them what to do. This is something Labor simply cannot afford to ignore if it wants a future.

Factional control has been the reality for so long now that it seems eternal – a given. But it’s not. Outlawing membership of disciplined, internal, party-like organisations will never be easy, but a party desperate to remain relevant in a fast-changing political environment wouldn’t find it impossible either. Decisive rule changes and strong leadership could do it.

It’s my guess that the overwhelming majority of Labor members would welcome such a change, waking up the day after the factions’ grip has been broken to wonder why they hadn’t done it years ago.

As the teals and others are demonstrating, democracy may be some 2500 years old, but it is still the future. Factions are not.

Premier Andrews should seize the moment offered by the IBAC report and dismantle the power of the Victorian factions, beginning now. History will thank him. So, I imagine, will the Labor government in Canberra. 

Dennis Glover’s next novel, The Polar Record, will be published in 2023.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "Pulp faction".

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