In today’s Age, Victorian state political editor Paul Austin had a curious page-3 piece on ALP branch stacking. It seems Austin, who has been snapping away on the issue since the Liberals leaked him the confessions of Right faction “whistleblower” Costas Socratous last week, had obtained an internal email from Victorian Socialist Left faction secretary Andrew Giles revealing a “fall out” in the party.

In the email quoted by Austin, Giles says that some Right-controlled seats had been “comprehensively stacked by conservative elements of the party”. Nothing new there — the SL chieftain has been making his feelings known on opposing factions’ irregularities for years. And, as Austin acknowledges, this latest missive wasn’t exactly new either — Giles sent it almost seven weeks ago, on April 6, well before the Socratous bombshell hit — making The Age‘s headline, “ALP factions fall out over branch stacking”, somewhat misleading given its string of stories published over the past seven days.

But it turns out Giles has been far from silent on the Socratous issue. In his regular update issued last Thursday before that night’s meeting of the ALP’s powerful administrative committee, Giles responded at length to Socratous’ confessions of under-the-table recruitment in Brendan O’Connor’s federal seat of Gorton.

While the Lindsay Tanner-aligned stalwart admits the latest allegations are “disappointing”, he condemns the specific charges made by his former factional sparring partner as lacking proof. He also reminds readers of previous investigations into Gorton conducted by party elder John Cain way back in 2004, and follow-up charges against Socratous, that were rejected by the Right.

Our concerns remain in relation to elements of the ALP in Gorton – and some other areas. But these matters must be considered on the basis of evidence, not assertion. In this regard Party Officers have considered the material available, and the State Secretary has requested Socratous’ co-operation with an investigation. He has refused, making any investigation problematic.

Although Giles says the ALP “has more to do”, the general tenor doesn’t exactly fit with The Age‘s attempts to kick the story along, breathlessly citing “new developments” that “threaten to undermine Labor’s prospects in this year’s federal and Victorian elections”. Indeed, it’s likely the general public couldn’t give a toss about reports of internecine wrangling among the unrepresentative swill that makes up Labor’s modern day membership base.

Last year, Giles was part of a posse of ALP officials who responded to branch stacking allegations in the wake of the Brimbank council saga, producing a cross-factional report that included a new suite of rules to crack down on rorts and open up the party. The gist of that report is repeated in Austin’s story. Again, nothing new.

Here are the pertinent paragraphs from last Thursday’s email:

Gorton allegations resurface

The past year has seen the Party take major steps forward in dealing with the membership abuses of the past. In particular, the Left led the establishment of a committee which took a broad look at these issues and made some recommendations to further crack down on branch-stacking – giving Victoria the toughest Rules framework in Australia – and find new ways to involve members. This committee wrote to all party members and invited them to raise any concerns regarding branch-stacking activities.

In this context it is disappointing, to say to the least, to read Costas Socratous’ allegations in The Age. All the more so when you consider that five years ago he was named in the report into branch-stacking in Gorton that was rejected by the Right.

Then Left and independent members of the Admin Committee did all in their power to see the Rules applied. And, more recently, we have seen the end of George Seitz’ parliamentary career following more revelations.  Our concerns remain in relation to elements of the ALP in Gorton – and some other areas. But these matters must be considered on the basis of evidence, not assertion. In this regard Party Officers have considered the material available, and the State Secretary has requested Socratous’ co-operation with an investigation. He has refused, making any investigation problematic.

Fundamentally, recent events are a timely reminder that as a Party we have much more to do. Taking action against abuses is one thing, but building a stronger, more outwards-focussed party culture quite another. We must continue to ensure that our Rules are applied to safeguard the integrity of our internal democracy – recognising, though, that this is a precondition to building a more democratic, growing and vibrant organisation and not an end itself.

In the UK, David Milliband has highlighted the electoral value of having vibrant local parties in calling for a revival of a culture of organising. And the US Democrats “Organising for America” project, grown from the organic grass-roots base that pushed Obama into office, shows the power of genuinely involving activists in the project of reshaping society. The success of Rainbow Labor and LEAN are pointers to the broader possibilities of empowering of members to lead. Let’s continue the conversation around opening up political space to activists as well as making it clear that branch-stacking has no place in Victorian Labor.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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