What is the stack of branches? Inside the political question behind Victoria’s anti-corruption hearings
The stacking of branches is an issue that cost Victorian Prime Minister Daniel Andrews four ministers and a pressured Labor MP.
And Victoria’s Independent Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) has just started public hearings which it says will last for several weeks.
Here’s how branch stacking works and why it’s making the headlines.
Stacking Branches Is To Build Political Power
Basically, branch stacking is all about getting a group of people whose votes you control to join a political party branch.
It is a way of influencing candidate preselections or political positions by building a block of controllable votes.
At the opening of the hearings, IBAC assistant lawyer Chris Carr SC offered the following definition:
The stacking of branches can be described as organize people to join a political party that they have little real interest in joining. Of course, few reluctant members will part with their money to join. So an integral aspect of branch stacking is the payment of membership fees by politicians, aspiring politicians, their associates or those seeking influence.
So, a key part of branch stacking is covering the membership fees for those you’re trying to sign up, and it’s that part that goes against party rules.
In 2018, concerns about the stacking of branches were raised after the number of Labor Party branch members in Heidelberg rose from 13 to more than 325 in a decade.
At the time, at least one member told the CBA that their membership was paid for by others, who told them how to vote.
It’s not illegal, but it’s against the rules of the big party
Stacking branches is not illegal, unless the process resulted in false information being provided to the Australian Election Commission, such as members using a false address or forging signatures.
In this case, the activity could be prosecuted as fraud.
However, under the Australian Labor Party and National Liberal Party national constitutions, members must pay for their own membership and live at the address they claim.
Following the emergence of the latest branch-stacking allegations in the Victorian branch of the Labor Party, a review was launched by party heavyweights Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin.
This review identified the stacking of branches as an “insidious practice” that had affected the integrity of party members, resulting in a controversial purge of more than 1,700 members.
Work in the spotlight, but it is not alone
The IBAC hearings this week are part of Operation Watts, a joint investigation with the Victoria Ombudsman that is looking into the branch stacking allegations.
The IBAC is also investigating whether taxpayer-funded staff undertook branch stacking while on the public dollar, as well as the misuse of government funds for political purposes.
On Monday, Labor MP Anthony Byrne admitted to IBAC that he had paid for the membership of others in the Labor Party and said Andrews’ government minister Luke Donnellan had done the same.
Mr Donnellan admitted he broke party rules and resigned as minister within hours, but said he never abused public funds.
His departure came more than a year after allegations of branch stacking put an end to the ministerial careers of fellow Labor MPs Adem Somyurek, Marlene Kairouz and Robin Scott.
Last year, the Liberal Party was rocked by its own branch-stacking scandal, after allegations surfaced suggesting power brokers ordered taxpayer-funded election officials to get involved in branch stacking operations.
Mr Carr also made it clear that the IBAC public hearings intended to use the stacking of branches in the Victorian branch of the Labor Party as “a case study to examine what some evidence suggests to be broader issues “.