A secret taxpayer-funded flying squad of Victorian ALP hard men continue to wage factional warfare, recruit members and compile dirt on the opposition, more than five years after the controversial practice was officially abandoned.
The group of around 10 “pool” staffers, plucked from the electorate offices of state upper and lower house MPs, billed the taxpayer for over $500,000 for political activities last year, including recruiting new members, running by-elections and interrogating electoral databases. Their activities were overseen not by voters, but by the ALP’s Head Office in King Street, despite a 2004 edict abolishing them.
One pool member, Sel Sanli, was accused in the Victorian Ombudsman’s Report into Brimbank Council of having illegally distributed Australian and Victorian electoral data to local government factional allies. Others include operatives from inside Labor’s re-united ruling right faction — Tim Holding staffer Steve Staikos, Marlene Kairouz staffer Burhan Yigit and ex-Nazih Elasmar staffer Steven Tsitas.
In Sanli’s case, the Victorian Electoral Commission has been directed by the Ombudsman to investigate alleged breaches of the Electoral Act, with a view to laying charges.
The flying squad differs from regular electorate officers, who concentrate on serving constituents and dealing with administrative queries. While genuine EOs undertake some political work, they are mainly expected to act as a point of contact between the public and their local representatives. Insiders say that ALP Head Office has reprised the central pool solely for partisan political purposes.
Despite maintaining an official state parliament email address, the majority of pool staffers work under the aegis of Victorian State Secretary Stephen Newnham. Each gets paid around $55,000 for their troubles, including expenses. Some continue to work as regular electorate officers, and also local government councillors, in addition to their head office duties.
When contacted by Crikey, neither the Greens nor the Opposition had heard of the staffers-turned-enforcers, believing them to have been purged following a controversy that erupted over the practice in 2002 and their eventual abolition two years’ later.
Greens upper house MP Greg Barber said he was “shocked and dismayed” and called for the half-a-million dollar annual impost to be immediately invoiced to Labor.
“I think it’s a rip off. Electorate officers are meant to serve the community, not the partisan political purposes of the ALP.”
Mr Barber said he had trouble erecting a Greens triangle in his Parliament office window and was concerned at the formalised arrangements of the central pool.
According to official ALP guidelines, each rural MP in the upper and lower house is expected to donate 0.1 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff to ALP Head Office. Metropolitan MPs in the upper house are expected to donate 0.5 FTEs. That equates to around 10 staffers, based on the ALP’s current representation in state parliament.
Crikey understands there have also been rumblings of dissent over the pool inside ALP state caucus. Critics say the staffers are essentially a tool of the party’s right and are considered crucial cogs in shoring up State Secretary Newnham’s shaky factional support.
The new arrangements appear to have been hatched following 2006 changes to electorate officer allocations when upper house members were granted an extra EO to deal with expanded Legislative Council boundaries. Each Victorian lower house member is already allocated two electorate officers.
The issue has been festering for years, as this 2002 Age article makes clear. The then Liberal opposition first introduced the idea of a central pool in 1990. During mid-90s under Jeff Kennett, the system was based on total representation in the upper house. However, this led to charges the government didn’t need the extra support, regaled as they were with Ministerial advisers and tens of thousands of public servants.
In 2002, a row erupted over the use of the central pool. At the time, the Bracks government proposed to equalise allocations by spreading the formula across both houses of parliament, resulting in the sacking of seven opposition staffers.
But in 2003-04, the pool was modified again, with 13 staffers getting their marching orders, according to evidence given during the 2004-05 Budget Estimates process. Its reinstatement has occurred under the radar — the Greens, and the opposition told Crikey they were unaware of the changes.
Last year, a strict code of conduct was introduced to deal with the activities of electorate officers. On the issue of outside employment, the code was unambiguous:
“Parliamentary electorate officers only engage in other employment where the activity does not conflict with their role as a Parliamentary electorate officer,” it read.
The Brumby government will soon legislate to ban electorate officers, including some members of the flying squad, from working simultaneously as local government councillors. But if the Premier is serious about addressing conflicts of interest, he may also want to look even closer to home in the hallowed halls of state parliament.