Branch Stacking and Party Democracy

By Nick Daniel

Australia was shocked in June this year by tapes revealing that then-Victorian Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade, and ALP factional warlord, Adem Somyurek, was engaging in industrial scale branch stacking. These revelations were likely less shocking to members of the Party. While many were disappointed that this had occurred, we were not surprised. The practice of branch stacking is, after all, part of the everyday activity of the great Australian Labor Party.

Everyone is Someone Else's Stack

‘Stacking’ is totally infused into the everyday language of Labor Party society. I suspect that there are no two words used to discuss party matters more than ‘stack’ or ‘stacked".  'Those pricks stacked that meeting, we’ll just stack the next one, oh she’s just a stack…' The common refrain that ‘everyone is someone else’s stack’ is testament to the fact that the practice is part of what keeps the party going.  Many begin their Labor Party lives through it, and its continued practice sustains it. Stacking is so ubiquitous that it has become impossible to imagine the party without it. It would not surprise at all if we found minutes from that first meeting under the Tree of Knowledge, containing complaints to the end that the pricks from the other side were actually stacks and that the meeting was therefore illegitimate.

Part of the difficulty here is the elasticity of the term itself. Branch stacking is simply the act of recruiting someone into a branch for the purposes of influencing a pre-selection. Defined this way, inviting a supportive friend to a branch meeting can be construed as stacking. Offering that friend a beer and asking them to join the Labor Party, to vote for me in a future pre-selection is also branch stacking. If I go to a local football club with Labor Party membership forms and offer the entire under 18’s team dinner in exchange for filling out the form (whose application I will submit and pay for myself) - stacking. If I enlist a taxpayer funded electoral officer to do the same - it is also branch stacking. 

The problem should be obvious: we have a single term for a set of acts with variable ethical content, from the relatively mundane to the downright corrupt. This is further complicated by active recruitment strategies which, while technically a form of branch stacking, can be understood as an admirable form of community empowerment.

Let's say I live in a local government ward represented by a councillor from the Labor Party. The Councillor is deeply unpopular in the community, but it is a safe area for the ALP. If the councillor is preselected they are likely to be elected to the position again despite community opposition. Knowing this, I devise a plan to actively recruit new members from the area with the understanding they will likely vote against the incumbent in a future preselection. I do everything I can to bring in new members. I talk family and friends into joining the Party, I doorknock individuals I know are likely to be sympathetic, and run community events with an eye to recruiting attendees. My efforts are rewarded and I am successful at the next preselection, the new members vote en masse in favor of a candidate that represents them better than the incumbent - this person happens to be myself. 

By any metric I have inflated party membership for the purposes of influencing a preselection to my own end - I have branch stacked - and no doubt my opponents will frame the preceding events in these terms.  But on a different reading, I have empowered previously inactive members of the community, and allowed them to make a greater contribution to Australia’s democracy.

Stacking of this kind has, in fact, been the usual method through which members contest the Labor Party. Because of this, moves to negate stacking can be conflated with moves to negate contestation all together. The Party thrives when new members reflective of the country’s diversity join and participate. At a time where party reform is being considered we need to be wary of ideas that deepen the Labor Party’s crisis of participation disguised as anti-stacking measures. 

Criminal Stacking: Karen Ehrmann

This is all brought out in the relatively recent history of Party branch stacking, in which we see a mixture of outright illegality, moral ambiguity and potential virtuosity. 

Take the notorious example of Karen Ehrmann. In September 2000 Ms Ehrmann became the first person in the history of Australia to be jailed for electoral fraud in the name of stacking a North Queensland electorate. 

Ehrmann’s story begins as a pretty typical one to those familiar with the Labor Party. She began her political career as a Councillor in her home town of Townsville before seeking pre-selection in the state electorate of Thuringowa, seeking the support of the dominant faction of North Queensland Labor politics, the Australian Workers Union. With their backing Ehrmann won preselection easily and was set to represent the ALP in the forthcoming election.

Ehrmann’s opponents quickly realised, however, that something had gone awry - members who had been registered on the electoral roll were simply not known  at their recorded addresses. When reported, the matter was swept under the carpet by a stacked Internal Tribunal of the ALP. 

It was not until she refused to support the AWU’s preferred candidate for the neighbouring electorate of Townsville, an act the faction considered to be a form of treason, that Ehrmann’s actions were made known to the public. On 11 August 2000 she pleaded guilty to 24 counts of forging and 23 counts of uttering Commonwealth Electoral Enrolment forms. 

This kind of conduct, and that of the faction that supported her, is an obvious case of corruption for the sake of holding onto power. It, like the practices of Somyurek, need to be liquidated from any party that aims for any level of democratic and moral fortitude. It is ‘stacking’ of the most vile and illegal kind.

But how exactly are good faith members meant to react to such behaviour? It is crucial here that Ehramann’s fall from grace only ever occurred because her friends in the AWU turned on her. Claims by her opponents were dismissed by the internal tribunal, there was therefore no legitimate avenue by which local members could expunge a criminal band from their electorate. This brings us to the case of Peter Baldwin, and how he ‘stacked’ out inner city Sydney.

Whatever it is we sign them up

Like many members of the ALP, Peter Baldwin was brought into the Party as a stack. Baldwin’s father signed an anti-Vietnam petition being used by Labor Left activists in the North Shore to actively recruit. Using this method they convinced not only Baldwin senior to become an active member of Hornsby Branch, but to also drag his son along to vote with him. Not long after, Baldwin would employ similar methods to turn inner city Sydney into a stronghold of the left.

In 1972 Baldwin moved to Balmain with intent to begin an active recruitment campaign. This was the beginning of a battle which through Baldwin’s force of will, and some friendly demographic shifts, transformed the inner city branches into an area of absolute left-wing hegemony. At the time the inner city was a fortress for the conservative right within the party, though when Baldwin joined some fragments of a new inner-city left were forming.

The overhauling of these branches, and the preselection of Baldwin to the seat of Sydney, was not a function of passive membership change, but an explicit attempt by Baldwin and others to inflate their numbers through active recruitment. 

Anne Summer, a participant in this effort, describes the method of the Baldwinites as: ‘We knock on their doors and ask them what they're into. Trees? Uranium? Coal-loaders? Whales? Whatever it is, we sign them up on that basis.’ Matched by the right-wing, branch numbers inflated to what we would now consider preposterous numbers - reportedly 500 in the Balmain branch alone.

The local right described what Baldwin and his cadre were doing as stacking - and they were right. But stacking in this sense is a natural form of conflict in a political party, where ideas actually matter.

Further, the nature of the ALP means that active recruitment campaigns of the kind pursued by the Baldwinites becomes the only plausible way in which members of the public can become active in the party. 

The Labor Party is a strange and confusing beast. Outside of student politics the main way in which new members will interact with that beast is through branch meetings. While branches can be an exciting venue for political contestation through which the rank-and-file are given an opportunity to have their say, they are also extremely arcane and often intimidating spaces. Baldwin himself noted that his first few meetings ‘were fairly confusing with these various structures and entities that  make up the Labor Party: FECs, SECs and so forth. It was all Greek  to me I recall at the time’. 

As we have already noted, practices similar to those pursued by Baldwin and his colleagues in the early 1980’s are common to the point of being a standard method of political contestation. But these practices ought to strengthen the party by bringing a broader range of voices and supporters into it, instead of being subject to suspicion. 

They are only considered malicious as a function of the fact that in a party so sparsely populated as our own, even relatively modest recruitment drives can significantly alter the fate of a preselection, and therefore distort democracy in undesirable ways. It is this fact that we must address if the blight of stacking is to be removed once and for all.

The Need for Democracy

There are plenty of common sense reforms that could be made to impede the pernicious effect of branch stacking on the ALP. One simple thing to do would be to ban cash payments for membership. That way those engaging in malicious stacking cannot simply walk into head office and pay for the membership of other members. Changing the rules to qualify as a preselector might help, requiring more active membership in the branches before members can vote. These measures are, however, just as often used to undermine genuine democracy in the party and often favor party apparatchiks whose superior understanding of the rules can  allow them to exploit mechanisms that disenfranchise new members.

Other reform proposals designed to negate stacking often do so at the price of conflict entirely. As we have seen, branch stacking is and has been the main vehicle for conflict within the Party, and so it can be easy to conflate the dangers of unethical stacking with the conflict itself. Fighting dirty is bad, but conflict in a political party is both normal and healthy. In fact, internal conflict can be a signifier of an organisation with a vibrant grassroots with diverse ideas. It is natural for those who disagree passionately with one another to engage in contests over these ideas.  It serves only those who materially benefit from the status quo to say otherwise.

These sorts of proposals miss the real problem: that the Labor Party is one that can be stacked so easily in the first place. Most members will be aware of local preselections that are determined by one or two votes, not due to the competitive and vibrant nature of party democracy, but because there were only a handful of voters in total. Preselections where the number of eligible preselectors doesn't reach double digits are depressingly common. This is most often the case in council preselections, but are not unheard of at state or even federal level. Admittedly these are usually in safe seats for the conservative coalition (though these are not totally valueless to the strategic branch stacker who can easily win delegates to conferences in these often neglected areas).

Low membership makes branch stacking not only a plausible way of influencing the ALP but often an easy and rewarding one. Until the party finds a way to encourage mass participation the problem will persist. The reforms I have mentioned might help to put up barriers, but as long as it's the case that 20 members in such and such branch can determine the future of a given electorate someone will eventually take advantage of that fact.

This is why genuine party democracy, grassroots activism and mass participation are the only real solutions to the perennial problem of branch stacking. You simply cannot stack a democracy. This would mean a Labor Party that rewards community engagement, active recruitment and good arguments over tactical stacks. Admittedly it would mean an Australian party that takes a form unlike any we have seen in this country, where mass parties have been extremely rare, but it is both a necessary ambition for the future of the party, and reflective of the ALP’s powerful origins in local organisation.

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  • Nicholas Daniel
    published this page in Articles 2020-09-18 12:34:45 +1000
  • Nicholas Daniel
    published this page in Articles 2020-09-18 12:32:08 +1000