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How branch stacking helps conservatives

Sep 3, 2020 • 16m 31s

Serious allegations of branch stacking and factional warfare have engulfed both major parties in recent months, and the latest example even implicates senior federal ministers. Today, Mike Seccombe on why branch stacking has become more common, and how it’s influencing key policies.

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How branch stacking helps conservatives

301 • Sep 3, 2020

How branch stacking helps conservatives

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.
Serious allegations of branch stacking and factional warfare have engulfed both major parties in recent months.

The latest example within the Liberal Party even implicates senior federal ministers.

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe, on why branch stacking has become more common, and how it’s influencing key policies.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Mike, earlier this year, the Nine Network aired accusations of branch stacking in the Victorian Labor Party, complete with secret recordings. Last week, they published allegations of branch stacking, this time in the Victorian Liberal Party. So let's talk about those allegations, what were they?

MIKE:

Well, according to the documents and recordings that were passed to the Nine exposé, there were factional operatives working on behalf of a very religious group of people within the party who had allegedly given taxpayer funded jobs to staffers where they worked on stacking conservative members into the party, heavily skewed, I might say, from the Indian community and people of Mormon faith.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“Why are so many Mormons signing up?”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #2:

“It’s easy for people that are engaged in branch stacking to target specific groups because they are all in one location.”

MIKE:

And of course, it's against the law for electoral staff to do that kind of stuff.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #2:

“When I first met Marcus, it was clear to me that he had the gift of the gab. But really it’s about his ability to coordinate large groups of people.”

MIKE:

Allegedly, they were operating on behalf of a youthful, hard right powerbroker called Marcus Bastiaan, and the federal assistant treasurer and minister for housing, Michael Sukkar.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“Is Marcus Bastiaan a branch stacker?”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #2:

“I would say yes but that’s only through rumours…”

MIKE:

And the ultimate goal, apparently, was to remove as many as four state and six federal liberal parliamentarians and replace them with people loyal to the Bastiaan-Sukkar faction.

RUBY:

And so what has the fallout been, Mike, since all of this became public when the story ran?

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #3:

“Liberal power broker Bastiaan resigned yesterday from the party…”

MIKE:

Well, Bastiaan's quit the party. So that's the big one.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #4:

“Those activities are just not acceptable in the Liberal party. And the Liberal party has taken action and Mr Bastiaan has gone and that’s the right outcome.”

MIKE:

The Victorian branch is undertaking an audit of its membership. Sukkar has issued furious denial, saying that he never authorized taxpayer funded staff to undertake party political activity. And Kevin Andrews has denied knowledge of any such activities in his office.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #4:

“Well both Mr Andrews and Mr Sukkar have put our statements and they’ve completely rejected the allegations and they have referred those matters…”

MIKE:

He's referred the allegations about his staff to the Department of Finance for review and has affected kind of the wounded dignity of the parliament's longest serving MP.

To quote him; “The suggestion that I would be coerced into making decisions on staffing arrangements in my electorate office by others is untrue”, he said. “As father of the house, my integrity and my reputation mean everything”.

But of course, this isn't the first time that Andrews has been accused of this kind of behavior.

RUBY:

So this has happened before? Can you tell me about that?

MIKE:

Yeah, it was more than four years ago. Back on May 8, 2016, a story ran that had notable similarities to this one.

Right wing zealots, dirty tricks. Except it wasn't in the Nine media this time. This one ran in The Australian. They reported that an electorate staffer in Andrew's office had engaged in alleged ethnic branch stacking.

It wasn't the Mormons and Indians this time. It was the Macedonian community. And then this staffer took the rap and quit after the scheme was discovered. So anyway, it appeared, but then disappeared very quickly.

Archival Tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

“And the governor general has accepted my advice to dissolve both houses of parliament effective tomorrow morning…”

MIKE:

It was very fortuitous for Andrews and the party that the same day the story ran was the day that Malcolm Turnbull, then prime minister, went off to Government House and called the election.

Archival Tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

“And call an election for both houses - a double dissolution - on the second of July.”

MIKE:

So suddenly all the factional maneuverings and infighting were papered over and put on hold because there was an election in progress.

Archival Tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

“… maintain the commitment to our national economic plan for growth and jobs, or go back to Labor with its higher taxing…”

MIKE:

But despite this appearance of unity, it appears that the stacking never stopped. It just continued. And for years on, we have the finger of blame again being pointed at Andrew's staff, among others.

RUBY:

So there's a pattern of sorts of this within the Liberal Party. And there have been numerous stories over decades about this happening in Labor. So why exactly has branch stacking become a common feature in politics?

MIKE:

Well, numbers mean everything in political life. And they're the reason that branch stacking is a problem on all sides of politics. And the reason it's becoming a bigger problem is that party memberships are shrinking, which makes it easier for relatively small groups to assert control or to have greater influence.

I spoke to Anthony Whealy, QC, who's a former justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales Court of Appeal, and he's the chair of a body called the Center for Public Integrity. And Whealy said, well, why do you stack?

Archival Tape -- Anthony Whealy:

“You do it because you want to get a certain outcome. It might be preselection. Or it might be a particular policy that you want to get the numbers on.”

MIKE:

And the only way you can get those numbers is by fabricating the numbers. You know, so you stack people in in order to get your way. And it can be motivated by other things, too. The quest for power for its own sake.

Archival Tape -- Anthony Whealy:

“So I think in Somyurak’s case, given what we know about his personality, it was just a power play by a man obsessed with power and the enjoyment of it…”

MIKE:

Or of course, you can do it to seek retribution against your internal enemies, you know. But in any case, whatever the motivation, Wealy says, it distorts what should be the objective of any political party, which is to represent its supporters.

Archival Tape -- Anthony Whealy:

“The result of getting the numbers on that issue is to ruin the political system because while it’s not illegal, it distorts the outcome…”

MIKE:

The troubling thing here is, of course, that stacking is not of itself illegal. You know, it breaches party rules in most cases. But unless you engage in actual fraud, or as alleged in the exposé of the Victorian Liberal operation, unless you're doing it at the taxpayer's expense, you can go for your life. There's nothing illegal about it.

RUBY:

And so, Mike, what was the goal for the people involved in the alleged branch stacking in this instance? Was it about winning preselections or changing policy? What was their goal?

MIKE:

Well, essentially, all of the things that I mentioned above. They were trying to knock off sitting Liberal MPs from opposing factions. They were particularly motivated by the fact that those MPs were too socially progressive.

So it was about trying to shift the party and by extension, the government of Victoria and also, to some extent, the federal government to the right and to impose their idea of Christian values when it came to social policy.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Mike, we're talking about this latest factional war within the Victorian Liberal Party. What’s the motivation behind it?

MIKE:

Right. Well, the key aim of the Bastiaan-Sukkar group was to impose their version of morality.

They were and are anti-abortion, anti same sex marriage, the standard Catholic right, I guess you would say, religiously influenced agenda. And the reason that Bastiaan and Sukkar went after this certain grouping of MPs, the evidence suggests, was to exact revenge.

Archival Tape -- Michael Sukkar:

“My view is there are four people in the upper house on our side who broke face. Simon Ramsay, Bruce Atkison, Mary Wooldridge and Ed O’Donohue, now I think we can get rid of Simon Ramsay…”

MIKE:

...because they voted for the state's voluntary assisted dying bill, you know, which is to say euthanasia.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“In a historic move, Victoria today becomes the only state in Australia to legalise voluntary assisted dying…”

MIKE:

The thing there is, we know that Australians overwhelmingly favor euthanasia, carefully implemented, you know, with the right safeguards. And they have done for a very long time, for decades.

Numerous opinion polls, I went back and had a look at a bunch of them over many years suggest somewhere between 75 and 90 percent support, in most polls. And interestingly enough, the support was strongest in Victoria.

So clearly, these people were active in support of what is very much a minority position in the community generally and within their own party. Which, of course, is their right. But it's quite another matter to plot retribution against those who hold the opposing view and to use illegitimate means to do it.

RUBY:

So you're saying that this latest example was a sort of a rearguard action to maintain a conservative social policy, against the wishes of the majority of the public?

MIKE:

Yeah, that's right. And I might say this, this is not limited to the Liberal Party. I mean, it's a longstanding feature of the Labor Party as well. So if you look at the labor rank and file, they're considerably further to the left than is the parliamentary party.

And a number of people that I spoke to point to a major factor in the sort of manipulation of the the numbers within the Labor Party, and that is right wing unions and one in particular, which is the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, which is more commonly called the SDA, or The Shoppies, which is Australia's largest private sector union.

And there's a very long history there. And distilled down, I credit this distillation to Josh Cullinan and I might add, who heads a rival union, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union. But he's not wrong.

The central purpose of the SDA, of the Shoppies over the past 50 years has been to enroll workers into their organization. Not so much in the interests of the workers, but so that the Shoppies could get more numbers and therefore have greater influence within the policy formulation of the Labor Party at both state and national level.

RUBY:

Mike, it sounds like it tends to be right-wing factions in both parties who operate in this way. So, does it work for them?

MIKE:

Well, yeah. Yeah, it does work. And the Shoppies were long dominated and still are, although not to the same extent by right wing Catholics whose social agenda is not that far removed from the likes of Bastiaan and Sukkar.

And Cullinan can provide evidence of this. I mean, there was an SDA submission on abortion in 2012. There was one on same sex marriage, earlier submissions on IVF and stem cell research.

So although this doesn't quite fit the classic definition of branch stacking, it operates in a similar way, which is that you harness people by covert means to a political cause.

RUBY:

And Mike, coming back to the Liberals, is there evidence that this strategy of trying to maintain socially conservative policy is working well?

MIKE:

Well, it's certainly the case that religious conservatives are a growing presence within the conservative parties and not only in Victoria. You know, in Western Australia and elsewhere.

And there's no better example and no more expensive example either of the influence of the religious right than the marriage equality postal vote.

Archival Tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

“All Australians will have their say. They will get the opportunity to express their opinion on the issue of whether the law should changed to enable same-sex couples to marry…”

MIKE:

More than 80 million dollars of taxpayers money was spent holding a ballot, even though it was abundantly clear what the outcome would be. And the whole reason for it, the whole purpose of it, was to give cover to members of the religious right so that they could support changes to the marriage laws on the pretext that they were fulfilling the wishes of their electorate.

But, when it went to the vote, there were only four MPs who showed the courage to vote against the legislation.

Archival Tape --

“Lock the doors. As there are fewer than 5 members of the side for the no’s in this division, I declare the question resolved in the affirmative in accordance with standing order 127.”

MIKE:

There were another 10 who absented themselves. They abstained. And among their number were, tellingly, Kevin Andrews, Michael Sukkar and Scott Morrison, now our Prime Minister.

So I guess the point here is that the reactionary religious agenda manifests in all sorts of ways.

But it goes to the issue of branch stacking in general. It's kind of anti-democratic because it shifts the political contest from the ballot box or the parliament back to the party level. And that's why branch stacking matters. It's not just about the political gain of those involved, but it's about the policy impacts that affect us all, that work to keep those parties more conservative than the electorates that they're supposed to serve. And that's a real worry.

RUBY:

Mike, thank you so much for your time today.

MIKE:

My pleasure. Thank you.

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today;

Australia is officially in its first recession for almost three decades, with the June quarter GDP numbers showing the economy shrank by 7 per cent.

That’s the worst fall on record, and three times worse than the previous biggest fall of 2 per cent in 1974.

And the Victorian hotel quarantine inquiry heard from security firms yesterday, who said that they believe car-pooling among guards could help explain how COVID-19 was transmitted between staff.

The heads of security firms also rejected suggestions that guards were poorly trained and badly behaved.

And, it’s been confirmed the AFL grand final will be played outside of Melbourne for the first time in its 123-year history, with Brisbane set to host the 2020 decider.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

[Theme music ends]

Serious allegations of branch stacking and factional warfare have engulfed both major parties in recent months, and the latest example even implicates senior federal ministers. Today, Mike Seccombe on why branch stacking has become more common, and how it’s influencing key policies.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

How branch stacking drags policy to the right in The Saturday Paper

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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301: How branch stacking helps conservatives