On Australia Day 1999, South Australia woke up to find 2100 new members had joined the Labor Party, almost doubling its size.

Ralph Clarke — then a state MP — found 200 of those new members had landed in his local branch. But when he sent out welcome letters and began door knocking, he discovered that most had no idea they had joined up.

One or two of those new party members were so angry their names had been used that they pursued it with ALP headquarters only to discover that their signatures had also been forged. The ALP refused to hold an inquiry, so Clarke took action against his own party in the Supreme Court.

The case revealed that all 2100 new members had had their fees paid with just six cheques. But having already spent $86,000 on legal fees, Clarke was unable to force the ALP to determine just who had signed them.

“The Right and the Left were both doing it,” Clarke recently told The Power Index. “Each faction had a slush fund to sign people up and pay their fees. It was all about getting more delegates so they could control pre-selections.”

Why stack branches?

Australia’s major political parties choose their candidates at local level — or are at least supposed to — which means it’s the local party members that decide who’s going to represent them. The factions use branch stacking to get their own candidates pre-selected instead.

Sometimes, as in South Australia, the new “members” don’t even know their names are being used. Sometimes they’re dead and their names have been taken from gravestones. In Queensland in the 1990s, one organiser from the AWU faction signed up customers at his petrol station. At other times, people have been persuaded to sign up on the promise of a job for family members.

Often, the new members come en masse from the same religious or ethnic group. Vietnamese, Lebanese, Greeks, Taiwanese and Croatians have all starred in famous stacks around the country. But they say the Irish Catholics started it back in the home country.

How it works

All you need is a pen, a bus and plenty of cash. Oh yes, and mates galore.

To get a vote in a Labor Party pre-selection ballot in NSW you need to be a card-carrying party member, to belong to a branch and to attend two branch meetings a year.

So branch stackers get hundreds of forms signed, deliver them to Labor Party headquarters with money for the membership fees, then hire a bus to take the new “members” to the local branch meeting to sign on. Four months later they bring the bus back again to sign on a second time, and for a third time later in the year to complete their qualification.

“It’s not hard to get people to join,” one veteran of the trade told The Power Index.

But what generally happens next is your rivals fight back with a counter stack. And that’s when it becomes really interesting.

*Read more at The Power Index

Peter Fray

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