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.