Eric Dearricott has been a member of the Victorian ALP’s Administrative Committee since 2001 (apart from two years). A member of the Independents, and often the only Committee member who does not belong to one of the two main factions, he has worked consistently against branch stacking, and for a more democratic party that better looks after its members. Eric describes himself as “one of the few people who with relative objectivity can illustrate the dire state of the Party at its centre.”
The following edited extract from Eric’s submission to Administrators Bracks and Macklin lays bare the branch-stacking business model, and provides recommendations for how to stop it.
Every year towards the end of May, a ritual unfolds at ALP State Office. In the days and weeks leading up to the deadline for membership renewals, factional operatives, usually political office staff, bring in membership renewal forms. They lodge, with cash, ten forms at a time – the maximum allowed per branch per day.
In 2019, as in previous years, thousands of renewals were lodged in this way, often with one operative bringing in payments for multiple branches. Many of the forms accompanying these renewals do not comply with the rules, but scrutiny is minimal.
Most party members pay for their membership individually, with a card or a personal cheque. Yet in many of the bigger branches, almost all memberships are renewed in bulk, and the factional operative doing the renewals pays in cash, almost always at the lowest rate.
It is easy for Administrative Committee members to see when branch stacking is taking place. At the monthly meetings every committee member receives a printed memberships report that includes the number of new applicants in every branch in the state.
Month after month in recent years, the maximum permissible numbers of new member applications from branches in key electorates have flooded into State Office. Most were clearly dodgy but the Committee waived them through with rarely an expression of alarm. So determined were those in support of the dubious applications that in March they refused to suspend branch meetings despite the impending pandemic: the National Executive had to impose a suspension of Victoria’s branch meetings.
Dan Andrews bemoaned that despite review after review of branch stacking nothing happens. It’s true. Here are some examples:
- The Gorton branch-stacking report, delivered to the Administrative Committee in 2005 found forgery, phantom branch meetings, payment for others memberships, bogus branch minutes and attendance lists. No action was taken.
- A 2018 ABC investigative report on alleged stacking in the Somali community in Heidelberg was referred to the Officers Committee, but again, nothing was done.
- People seeking to join the party through Central Branch had their applications held up for as long as two years as thousands of online applications – most of them stacks – awaited examination.
Neither faction has called out the branch stacking that is obvious month after month in the reports of membership growth that come into the Admin Committee. They could have saved the party significant harm by tackling the huge inflow into the state electorate of Melton before 2018 and the “recruitment” of hundreds of members into Branches in five federal seats – Bruce, Calwell, Holt, Lalor and Wills – over the past year. But no one has wanted to call it out because the seats the factions hold are protected by the Stability Pact.
The only time the majority group at Admin shows interest in members and branches is when a branch’s stacked applicants are at risk of being rejected.
In 2015, as a member both of the Administrative and the Membership Administration Committee, I provided evidence of significant online branch-stacking using anonymous pre-paid cards.
Instead of welcoming my discovery as a chance to reduce stacking, the then State Secretary took me to the Supreme Court seeking to deprive me of evidence to use at the Disputes Tribunal. His attempt failed in the Supreme Court but as a result, and contrary to the Party’s rules, State Office stripped all Admin members of their right to scrutinize membership payments made by card.
Branch stacking can be stopped, but it will require a concerted package of interlocked reforms. I set out the key ones here.
Seven reforms to stop branch stacking
1. To be able to vote in internal elections, a member must pay for or renew a membership by traceable means (personal credit/debit card, EFT or cheque).
Independents and Non-Aligned members have been proposing this for years – its time has come. As of mid-June more than 9000 members had not renewed their memberships, including almost all whose membership are paid in bulk by non-traceable means.
The welcome decision of the Administrators to introduce a requirement to pay by traceable means makes it quite likely that a sizeable proportion of the stacks will not renew.
2. Membership renewal payments should fall due on the anniversary of initial applications.
Instead of every member having to renew their membership by noon on the last working day in May, members would renew on the anniversary of joining. This would spread renewals throughout the year, eliminate bulk renewals and spread the workload for State Office membership staff.
3. Ban electorate office staff and other political staff from taking bulk membership forms and payments into State Office
The most common way in which stacks are renewed is by staff members from Parliamentarians’ offices and other political staff assembling and taking bulk renewals day after day to State Office. This practice must stop.
4. Appoint a Party Ombudsman
The Party should create a position of independent Ombudsman, to whom members and whistle-blowers can lodge grievances or concerns. The Ombudsman would have the right to initiate investigations — especially, but not only, into branch stacking.
Empowered with the right of access to all documents and information, physical or electronic, at State Office, the Ombudsman could act without fear or favour and be far more effective than the usual investigation committee of one Left and one Right member who inevitably white-wash the inexcusable.
5. Introduce an online payment system that enables easy recognition of potential stacking
An online system should be introduced that would flag and sort memberships to allow detection of potential stacks.
The system would monitor online payments made with the same card, online payments made by someone who is not the person being paid for, payments made using transferable, anonymous, prepaid cards and payments made from the same IP address.
6. Cap the number of State Conference delegates per Federal Electorate Assembly (FEA)
At present stacking brings a double reward. The stacking faction gets a mortgage not only on holding the local seat but also gains extra delegates at State Conference, enabling it to increase its number of members on the Administrative Committee, policy committees and, critically, the Public Office Selection Committee, which selects candidates for parliament.
In this way, stacks crowd out the voices of genuine members at State Conference. Capping the number of delegates for each FEA – at say, eleven, would greatly reduce the appeal of stacking.
7. Establish a neutral membership section in State Office, and provide better support to the Membership Administration Committee (MAC)
State Office needs an adequately staffed membership section with independence from factional appointees. This section should not only process applications and renewals but inspect them for compliance with existing rules and protocols before submitting them to the monthly MAC meeting for checking and oversight.
Without culture change neither new rules nor structure will fix our Party
Eliminating or significantly reducing branch stacking will enable the Party’s administration, parliamentarians and factions to move from protecting stacks, or protecting their positions against stackers, to the Party’s core business.
Even before the 60 Minutes disclosures, as the sole independent Administrative Committee member I had come to the conclusion that the only way to resolve the party’s failure to address relentless branch stacking and other anti-democratic activities was through intervention from the National Executive.
Now that intervention has happened, Administrators Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin have to focus above all on bringing about significant change in the culture of those at the highest organisational levels – the Party Officers and Administrative Committee and State Office officials. Without that culture change neither new rules nor structure will fix our Party.