Asymmetrical stacking

The big Australian political story of the weekend, overshadowing the Northern Territory election, was a special Channel Nine report on Sunday night on branch stacking in the Victorian Liberal Party. It has already led to the resignation from the party of former state vice-president Marcus Bastiaan.

There’s an irresistible symmetry with the case of Labor powerbroker and former minister Adem Somyurek, who resigned from the ALP in June after broadly similar allegations were broadcast against him by the same outlet.

Both cases involved alleged mass recruitment of members, possibly without their knowledge and certainly without personal payment, in aid of a brutal campaign for control of internal party ballots. Both also involved the exploitation of ethnic communities, and not coincidentally featured racial and sexual slurs, although Somyurek’s were rather more colorful.

Both cases also failed to produce anything that was at all surprising to anyone who was reasonably well acquainted with the workings of the two parties. The Somyurek case was enlivened by covert video recordings, which the Liberal case so far seems to lack, but both were in a sense “old news”. In each case, if the party authorities had really wanted to do anything about the problem, they already had ample basis on which to do so.

There’s a big difference, however, between knowing what’s going on and having evidence that’s strong enough to back a national TV broadcast without running foul of Australia’s insane defamation laws. That no doubt accounts for the delay in going public – particularly in the Liberal Party case, where none of the material seems to be more recent than 2018.

While the similarities are obvious, there’s an important difference in the cases that should be kept in mind. A couple of years ago, following the Liberal Party coup against Malcolm Turnbull, I pointed out the difference between the parties: “The Labor Party’s problem is that its MPs don’t believe in anything. The Liberal Party’s problem is that its MPs believe in things that the electorate regards as batshit crazy.”

Somyurek and his accomplices were out for power, pure and simple. There is no suggestion in any of Channel Nine’s material that any of them had much concern at all for policy or ideology. One source in Somyurek’s own faction described him as “Without any policy bone in his body.”

But that’s not the case in the Victorian Liberal Party. While the branch stackers are most certainly focused on power, it’s power in the service of a particular ideological agenda. They wanted to drag the party towards the hard right – an effort in which they succeeded prior to the 2018 state election, with disastrous electoral consequences.

I don’t presume to judge to what extent this might stem from deep philosophical commitment on their part. I suspect not very much. But that isn’t really the point; even if their initial motive was just expediency, the result is that they intend to take us to a very dark place. Whereas people like Somyurek will happily take us anywhere at all, as long as there’s something in it for them.

Branch stacking, on either side, is not new, and it will probably never be stamped out entirely. The thing that’s changed most in the forty years or so that I’ve been observing it is that more and more of it is being done with public money. As Bernard Keane pointed out yesterday, taxpayers fund the employment of staff who should be serving constituents but who all too often are engaged in factional projects.

That’s partly because the rules that might stop these things are not enforced. But it’s also because the rules themselves, which are written by these same politicians, have become more permissive over the years. As Michael Kinsley famously remarked, “the scandal isn’t what’s illegal; the scandal is what’s legal.”

Morally, branch stacking for an ideological cause may or may not be better than branch stacking purely for personal gain. But both are corrosive of democracy, and their perpetrators need to be shown the door.

9 thoughts on “Asymmetrical stacking

  1. One wonders if the irony of “It is imperative that we improve Australia’s moral standards, to avoid God’s divine judgement for our sins…” leading to “… therefore breaking laws and stacking branches is warranted” occurs to these people.
    At least the old Hartley-style Socialist Left held to a milder form of the Leninist view that what mattered most was getting rid of capitalism. Socialists are inherently consequentialist. Christians are supposed to to believe certain things are intrinsically wrong.
    Whether the local Falwells believe that they are “plundering the Egyptians” with these rorts, or whether they hold to some extreme form of divine-command theory (“stealing is only bad because Jehovah forbids it; so if you’re doing Jehovah’s work on earth, he presumably grants you an exemption when necessary and convenient”), who can say.
    Or maybe “we need to preserve and restore traditional hierarchies” (not just the hierarchy of monied over moneyless, a value which the wettest Turnbulls and Baillieux can also endorse, but more radically the hierarchy of Christians over infidels and of men over women, which is what sets them apart from the pink-dollar-chasing. business-deals-seeking centre-left of the Liberal Party) is their real motivation and “At least we don’t defile ourselves by associating with queer people” juts an ex post facto rationalisation that helps them get through the day.

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  2. Out of Intervention came the 1970s power-sharing scheme, which sought to exercise proportional control, and it ensures factional dominance, yet peace. ‘There’s room for everybody. Proportion the spoils, don’t seize them all’, designed to ensure that no faction dominated, but led from time to time aggressive branch stacking and outbreak of factional war.

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      1. Hewson would have been an Australian version of John Key, I’d say – a lot of similarities there – and in a good way. And the people who voted against him to stop a GST, got a GST anyway.

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  3. That article, plus the one Hewson links to, confirm the many ironies of Marcus Bastiaan. A devout Christian who (a) swears like a trooper and (b) “works Saturdays and Sundays” to build his business? Are his Mormon foot-soldiers planning to impose any sort of ecclesiastical discipline on the fellow?

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  4. I’m not sure of your intentions, but I think the way you’ve expressed this could give an oversimplifying impression in two respects.

    ‘In each case, if the party authorities had really wanted to do anything about the problem, they already had ample basis on which to do so.’

    I’m sure there are some people in positions of power (in both parties) who consider this kind of behaviour to be a bad thing (morally and/or practically) and would prefer it stopped; but it can’t be stopped without effort, cost, and risk. So I think it’s not so much that they don’t want to do anything about it as that they don’t want to pay the price they’d have to pay if they did something (effective) about it. For people who are not highly dedicated to the unscrupulous pursuit of power, it’s not easy to defeat people who are highly dedicated to the unscrupulous pursuit of power.

    ‘The Labor Party’s problem is that its MPs don’t believe in anything. The Liberal Party’s problem is that its MPs believe in things that the electorate regards as batshit crazy.’

    This might be true if you’re referring only to the specific MPs implicated in these activities. Thinking more broadly than that, I’m sure there are MPs in both parties who have sincere commitments which would attract significant mainstream support (as well as MPs in both parties who are mostly or wholly careerists).

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    1. Thanks J-D. I don’t think we disagree much there. You’re quite right that suppressing branch stacking would have a cost, so one can’t infer that those in charge have no desire at all to stop it; nonetheless, I think it’s fair to conclude that their desire to stop it is not as strong as it should be. And yes, my generalisation last year is of course unfair to many MPs on both sides. But I think it’s a good description of (as was its original intent) those at the margin who drove, respectively, the coups against Rudd & Gillard and the coups against Turnbull. And I think there’s a similar dynamic at work with branch stacking.

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