Branch stacking is a term used in Australian politics to describe the act of recruiting or signing up members for a local branch of a political party for the principal purpose of influencing the outcome of internal preselections of candidates for public office, or to inordinately influence policy of the party.
Allegations of such practices have become controversial in Australia after several inquiries or contests which received mainstream media attention, and most political parties now have clauses in their constitutions which allow "head office" intervention to resolve alleged stacking, or other allegations of fraud, with penalties for those who engage in it. Branch stacking itself is legal under Australian law, being an internal party matter, but some activities like providing false information to the Australian Electoral Commission, such as numbers of members, can be prosecuted as fraud.
There are several ways that branch stacking may influence the way in which decisions are made within political parties. For example, a party faction may enrol many members who belong to the faction or agree to vote in the manner instructed by faction leaders.
In the ALP
In the Australian Labor Party (ALP), besides membership stacking, another technique is to take advantage of the favoured position of unions within the party, especially the significant vote they have at ALP State and national conferences, which in turn determines party policy and elects internal office holders and membership of committees. The committees may in turn determine preselections for party candidates at elections. The number of members in a union determines the number of delegates to the conferences to which it is entitled. This offers an opportunity for stacking to take place at the union level, which then flows through to other organs of the ALP. Another avenue of stacking is the Young Labor wing of the ALP, which also sends delegates to ALP conferences, and is entitled to a seat on the ALP National Executive.
Party factions and the so-called "numbers men" try to work within the rules (and sometimes outside the rules) to advance their causes and reward their supporters. Some have labelled the faction leaders and numbers men as the faceless men of the Labor party, who have also been accused of being driving forces for the election of party leaders and cabinet ministers and the removal of prime ministers. When all factions are playing the system, it is not possible to tell the true views of party members on particular issues. The Hawke-Wran review of the ALP in 2002 claimed branch stacking, largely driven by factions seeking to expand their influence, had a "cancerous" effect on the party and a "deadening" effect on branch activity, as many of the recruited members have no commitment to the party.
In the Liberal Party
Commentators and authors within or formerly within the Liberal Party of Australia have claimed similar activity in their branches has had a similar effect. A recent example of alleged branch stacking within the Liberal Party occurred in 2017, with Liberals in Victoria claiming that members from within the party's religious right were stacking branches with Mormons and Catholic groups in a drive to pre-select more conservative candidates. A similar situation was reported in 2019, with allegations that members of the Liberal Party’s hard-right faction in Sydney were attempting to engage in branch stacking in order to erode the support of factional rivals, which included sitting Liberal members in several safe state and federal seats.
Activities commonly considered to be branch stacking include:
- Paying another person's party membership fee, with or without their knowledge.
- Recruiting members on the condition that they are then obliged to vote in a particular way.
- Recruiting members for the express purpose of influencing the outcome of a ballot within the party.
- Recruiting members who do not live at the claimed address of enrolment.
- Enrolling people on the electoral roll with false information about their identity or their address of enrolment — this may either take the form of consensual false enrolment, or of forgery.
- Organising or paying concessional rate fees for a person who is ineligible for concessional rates.
- "Cemetery voting", or using the names of dead people to vote in a party preselection.
- Offering inducements to younger or less powerful party members to engage in such behaviour.
- In Queensland in 2001, the Shepherdson Inquiry examined allegations of electoral fraud within the Labor Party in that state. While it concluded that no public elections had been influenced, it found that "the practice of making consensual false enrolments to bolster the chances of specific candidates in preselections was regarded by some Party members as a legitimate campaign tactic." As a result of the Inquiry, several people, including at least three sitting MPs, either resigned or were expelled from the Labor Party.
- Allegations of branch-stacking relating to the federal seat of Division of Wentworth within the Liberal Party's New South Wales division were published in 2006 by John Hyde Page, who both detailed his own role in the process and made allegations about numerous Liberal members and figures. Some of those named took successful legal actions for defamation and the book was subsequently pulled from the shelves.
- In 2006, Michael Towke was accused of branch stacking, falsely as it turned out. He was replaced as Liberal Party candidate by Scott Morrison, who went on to become Prime Minister of Australia in 2018.
- In March 2018, during the course of the 2018 Batman by-election campaign, Australian Greens candidate Alex Bhathal was accused of bullying party members and branch stacking, claims which she denied.
- In October 2018, ABC News revealed an instance of branch stacking in the NSW Young Nationals, with the alleged intention of advancing an 'alt-right' agenda within the party.
- In June 2020, 60 Minutes aired allegations against Victoria Labor MP Adem Somyurek that he was involved in branch stacking.
- In August 2020, The Age published an article of allegations against Federal Liberal MP Michael Sukkar and power broker Marcus Bastiaan of branch stacking.
- Bill Shorten ally Plumbers Union boss Earl Setches in Labor numbers rort
- Schneiders, Ben; Millar, Royce (24 November 2015). "Labor kids in new branch-stack scam at Deakin University". The Age. Retrieved 28 March 2016.
- Schneiders, Ben; Millar, Royce (28 November 2015). "Shorten allies used disgraced HSU for branch stacking scam". The Age. Retrieved 28 March 2016.
- Hawke, Bob; Wran, Neville (August 2002). "National Committee of Review Report". Retrieved 15 June 2014.
- Barns, Greg (2004). What's wrong with the Liberal Party. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-54288-X.
- ABC News, 14 April 2016: Tony Abbott criticises Liberal Party pre-selection process, confirms he's not endorsing Bronwyn Bishop
- Norman, Jane. "Victorian Liberals claim right faction stacking branches with Mormons and Catholics". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 27 March 2020.
- Rabe, Tom. "'Absolute pain': Internal division exposed in Liberal feud". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 27 March 2020.
- Queensland Criminal Justice Commission (April 2001). "The Shepherdson Inquiry - An Investigation Into Electoral Fraud" (PDF). Retrieved 11 February 2010.
- Millar, Lisa (1 May 2001). "Shepherdson Report handed down". 7.30 Report (ABC). Archived from the original on 30 July 2004. Retrieved 11 February 2001.
- Hyde Page, John (2006). The Education of a Young Liberal. Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0-522-85176-2.
- See e.g. David Clarke v Melbourne University Publishing Ltd t/a Melbourne University Press (2007) NSWDC 209; (2007) 5 DCLR (NSW) 308; (2008) ALMD 1736
- Sheehan, Paul (26 October 2009). "Nasty saga you nearly missed". The Sydney Morning Herald.
- "Greens bullying accusers 'only 4 per cent of branch': Alex Bhathal". 12 March 2018. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
- "Batman Green Bhathal denies stacking claim". 1 March 2018. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
- "Alex Bhathal, Greens candidate for Batman by-election, denies bullying party members". 1 March 2018. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
- "Manifesto reveals alt-right's plans to go mainstream after 'infiltration' of NSW Young Nationals". 14 October 2018. Retrieved 16 May 2019.
- "60 Minutes: Victoria Labor MP Adem Somyurek accused of branch stacking". news.com.au. 15 June 2020. Retrieved 15 June 2020.