The practice of recruiting large numbers of new party members to influence the results of an internal part ballot, particularly of pre-selections for parliamentary candidates, is legal but not condoned
Thanks to the recent report by Nine’s 60 Minutes and The Age, we are all coming to terms with the words ‘branch stacking’. And politics in Victoria among the ruling Labor Party just got hotter with the outbreak of the sensational report. At the helm of the controversy is Victorian minister Adem Somyurek with alleged accusations of branch stacking, and who has since been sacked by Premier Daniel Andrews.
“Branch stacking is the recruitment of a sufficiently large number of new party members to influence the results of an internal part ballot, particularly of pre-selections for parliamentary candidates. It is normally, but exclusively practised in the ALP among members of ethnic communities,” says Lyle Allan in a 2002 The Australian Population Research Institute report.
Amita Gill, founder of UniSoul Foundation, and someone who is actively involved with the Liberal Party, explains that branch stacking is signing up people as members of a local branch of an Australian political party for the purpose of influencing the outcome of the pre-selection of candidates.
Under both the ALP and LNP national constitutions, members must pay for their own membership and must live at their claimed address, says Emily Sakzewski of the ABC.
So, branch stacking is legal but touted to be a practice that is not condoned.
”It is bad for Australian politics as talent gets sidelined and deserving candidates could get rejected. It undermines the essence of democracy”
— Amita Gill, Founder, UniSoul Foundation
“For instance, you can go to a political party website and register to become a member by paying through your own credit card. Or, you can go to one of the branches and somebody who is already a political party member can fill up your form in return for cash. And that is where the rot stems because those aspiring to become election candidates can stack up candidates from the branch. Furthermore, supposing one is in the, say, Blackburn branch and has 10 members and somebody else has 26 members in Springvale branch, one can exchange members. However, if one starts putting in many members from one community then the suspicion arises,” says a political observer, who does not wish to be identified.
“People who are particularly interested in politics generally enter late but they don’t have time to build relationships and understand, they find a shortcut, enlist other people from the communities and use that base to try and become successful. This has worked very well for some, if you go by history,” adds another political observer on condition of anonymity.
It is understood that branch members make the important decision to pre-select a candidate to run for public office. “This is where the majority of branch-stacking activities occur—to channel those members’ votes towards a particular candidate. Influence can then permeate further into the party as pre-selection is traded for political favours. It is often aligned with factional battles,” reports The Conversation.
But where the problem becomes murkier is in the involvement of cash. “Most of the stacked branches pay via cash. If you remove cash payments, then everybody has to pay by their own card, and when they pay by their own card they know that they are members. A lot of people don’t even know they are members despite their details used and signatures are forged. If people have to pay via their own cards, this problem will be reduced.”
Interestingly, branch stacking has brought the spotlight on migrants and the Indian community too.
As one of the political observers mentioned above noted, “Migrants, who are aspirants, know their community listens to them because they feel a need to work together. So they join in large numbers, and there is no fair selection. There are a number of MPs who are there without any power and without making any contribution.”
“In the last 20 years white dominant parties saw some non-white MPs. But most of these migrant MPs were never given good roles”
Branch stacking is something that has worsened with time, note the observers, as people who are not capable know they can become MPs by making a couple of hundred members join the party.
“It has become like cancer for democracy. There is no room for leadership, you cannot develop leaders because every person has to become an MP, then you are given the chance to become a minister but no one can run as an MP unless he/she has the blessings of the power broker. It’s like mafia basically.”
Gill seconds the argument. “It is bad for Australian politics as talent gets sidelined and deserving candidates could get rejected. It undermines the essence of democracy.”
In a political system, where power rests in the hands of Anglos, is branch stacking the easy route for migrants?
“Yes, for years the Anglos used migrants and always elected their own candidates. George Seitz was one of the first who started stacking. So, in the last 20 years white dominant parties saw some non-white MPs. But most of these migrant MPs were never given good roles. Migrants see that the only way to influence is by joining members, by organising. There is no other way as power is in Anglo hands,” notes an observer.
The fallout of the latest scandal, he says, is that it has crystallised the divide between the ruling class and the working class. “In Victoria, if you look at ALP, migrants, especially Indians, have a dim future and the Liberal Party does not elect non-Whites. Power will not be shared.”
However, Kaushaliya Vaghela, MP and Member of Legislative Council for Western Metropolitan Region, says the Indian community has made a tremendous contribution to Victoria and to the Labor Party. “The process that has been established will ensure the voices of genuine Labor Party members—including those from the Indian community—are heard louder than ever before.”
The need of the hour is an overhaul of the system.
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