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The Victorian Branch of the ALP’s branch-stacking inquiry has been branded a failure by a leading party member who helped set it up.

Hawthorn branch secretary Ian Hundley, who alongside party elder Eric Dearricott were central to the decision to examine stacking after observing a day of membership renewal mayhem in May, says the inquiry fell flat because the same people who benefit from branch stacking wrote the report.

“In the end, the Victorian Branch examination of branch stacking was abortive, largely because powerful interests controlling the stacks (estimated to comprise 50% of the membership) used their influence to render the inquiry ineffective,” he wrote in a draft submission to the federal government’s second Green Paper on electoral reform, obtained by Crikey.

“This unhappy outcome in Australia’s largest political party is not without precedent, as previous such inquiries have also been closed down by executive decision. These experiences show that effective regulatory arrangements are necessary to make its internal processes more open and democratic and less susceptible to unaccountable operatives,” Hundley wrote.

Last month, the ALP’s powerful Administrative Committee endorsed a cross-factional sub-committee’s report into branch stacking, penned by three factional chieftains from the party’s Socialist Left and the divided right. It recommended the establishment of US-style primaries to choose a candidate for the seat of Kilsyth at the 2010 state poll and cut barriers to membership by reducing fees and slashing red tape. It was endorsed by retired party heavyweight Robert Ray and former state government minister Race Mathews in a press release distributed by new ALP state secretary Nick Reece.

However, key recommendations pursued by Hundley and Dearricott’s “Independents” faction, including the outlawing of bulk renewals and banning the annual “deadline renewal day”, where renewals are delivered by factional chiefs to party headquarters at 360 King Street, were not adopted.

A factional source contacted by Crikey disputed Hundley’s claims. “If Ian Hundley was serious about eliminating branch-stacking he’d be trying to make it easier for people to join the party, not try and impose restrictions after the fact.”

The source said that Hundley’s calls for memberships to be treated like other bills were impractical and that the ban on bulk renewals would cause chaos inside branches, where secretaries often lodged multiple memberships for practicality’s sake.

Hundley also criticised a lack of references to branch stacking in the federal government’s recent green paper into electoral reform.

The deputy leader of the short-on-numbers but big-on-morals splinter faction said the green paper ignored internal party matters, despite their centrality to Australian democracy. In his submission, Hundley said the state of internal ALP democracy was grim, with only 12,910 Victorian members qualified to vote in preselection ballots and internal elections. He said less than one in about 100 Labor voters retains ALP membership, based on the party’s primary vote at the 2007 federal election.

The issue of branch stacking will raise its head again when departing Western suburbs numbers man George Seitz releases a book examining the party’s internal culture. Senior powerbrokers are said to be nervous over the revelations contained in the book, which is expected to shine a light on preselection activities in key seats. Leading federal figures including Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy, are likely to be referenced when the tome is released in the lead up to next year’s state poll.

Last month, Seitz defended his vigorous recruitment practices to The Australian newspaper, claiming that “if you have members … you have to work”.

Peter Fray

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