Labor factions, mini-parties within the party, are a curse on the Labor Party and a gift that keeps giving to the Coalition parties. The Adem Somyurek branch-stacking debacle within the Victorian Labor Party is just the latest instalment of this curse.
Factions make a mockery of honest democratic participation through genuine party membership. They make party leaders look like ducks in a pond, playing their role in Australian democracy in plain sight, while beneath the surface factional heavyweights like Somyurek behave like gangsters pulling the strings.
The branch-stacking, that is illegal enrolment of branch members, which accompanied this factional politics, was on such a large scale in the Somyurek case that it may mean that up to 25 per cent of the state's 16,000 Labor Party members are inauthentic - not real members. Instead, they are people recruited and paid for by the Somyurek faction merely to play the numbers game in party preselections.
Factional politics and branch-stacking is widespread in all political parties because power, control and, ultimately, leadership stems from having the numbers. Parties are all broad churches in which deep divisions are rife, so factions naturally emerge. They are fuelled not just by ideology but also by careerism and ambition. The prize is a seat in parliament and ultimately, for some, party leadership and ministerial positions.
All parties know about factionalism and branch-stacking. Many of our recent prime ministers have either participated in, suffered from, or gained from such perverse activities at some stage in their careers. Think Paul Keating, Julia Gillard, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. These leaders also know how important balancing factional allegiances is when it comes to forming ministries in their new governments.
The same is true of other senior party figures. Factions have been lamented by former Labor leaders such as Mark Latham. Yet they play a major role in the successful careers of figures on both the right and the left, such as Bill Shorten and Penny Wong, as their biographies show. Factional life is inescapable within the Labor Party. Many members take it for granted as a fact of life and may not recognise the damage it does to the party. MPs who manage to maintain their independence from factions, such as Andrew Leigh, are rare.
Parties, while committed to stamping out exceptionally damaging outbreaks, are also somewhat resigned to the inevitability of both these perversions. Too many political leaders have squibbed the issue of party reform in this area or have been impotent to do anything about it. Political leaders often seem less powerful within their own party than party power-brokers.
The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is to be congratulated on his strong response to the revelations about Somyurek, though surely he had some previous knowledge of what was going on.
Following the latest Labor outbreak senior party figures Nick Greiner (Liberal) and Peter Beattie (Labor) joined an ABC panel for a civilised conversation about the topic and commiserated with each other about the dilemma parties faced. Actions taken so far, like demanding active participation and a year or two of service from members before allowing them to vote in pre-selections, do not appear to have cleared up the problem.
Factions certainly contribute to the fall in trust in the democratic process among citizens.
One of those dilemmas is that factions and branch-stacking have benign aspects and are closely related to legitimate party functions. Mass political parties are just a shadow of the great institutions they once were. Membership has shrunk considerably. In this context all parties need to grow their membership and new members are like gold.
They also generate much-needed extra revenue. If they are young or come from non-English speaking background ethnic communities all the better because it means the party is extending its reach in the community. Functions like street-level campaigning and fundraising need extra members.
My attitude towards factions has hardened over my 40 years of writing about political parties. My earlier acceptance of their inevitability and even the worst of their internal party behaviour, like branch-stacking, is no longer good enough. The benefits, which may extend to sharpening internal party debates and policy development, fall far short of the costs to Australian democracy. Factions certainly contribute to the fall in trust in the democratic process among citizens.
Revelations of factional rorting and branch-stacking are a gift to the opponents of the party in question. In this case the federal Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese, has been put on the back foot by the Prime Minister, who has delighted in his good fortune. The issue has spread to NSW where the state Labor Opposition Leader, Jody McKay, has been censured.
None of this adverse publicity is any good for Labor though there is little evidence that the general public are really tuned into such issues. Political commentator Paul Bongiorno has noted in The Saturday Paper that voters have not marked down Victorian Labor so far. He comments that, while factions were rampant and branch-stacking out of control, "the Balkanisation of Victorian Labor over the past decade was barely noticed by the voting public". Andrews' Labor polled 57 per cent in the last state election and Shorten's Labor polled 53 per cent in the last federal election. Victoria is a Labor stronghold.
Even if parties get away with it because of voter disinterest in internal party issues there is a bigger picture to worry about. Due process matters. Political parties dominate the selection of our parliamentary representatives and ultimately our governments. Branch-stacking led by factional leaders lessens the role of merit in determining who represents us in parliament. It raises legitimate questions about the way every one of them has been elected.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.