Liberal MP Kevin Andrews (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The recurring theme of branch stacking stories — apart from rampaging egos, sundered alliances and political self-obsession — is the misuse of taxpayer-funded staff for internal party politicking.

There’s a long list. The claims that electorate office and ministerial staff were involved in Adem Somyurek’s branch stacking within the Victorian ALP. Claims of branch stacking by an electorate officer for that most expired of political has-beens, Kevin Andrews, that led to a resignation. The employment of family members as electorate office staff. The involvement of electorate office staff in the misuse of taxpayer funding for political purposes.

Now, Kevin Andrews’ office is back in the news over sensational evidence reveaed by Nine television and newspapers that electorate office staff there were engaged in branch stacking and “facilitating factional operations”. The staff were said to be under the direction of the Victoria Liberal Christian right powerbroker Marcus Bastiaan.

Bastiaan, in a series of embarrassing recordings, also speaks of his ambition to secure a federal seat. “My preference much strongly [sic] is the Senate. I’d like to have a seat where I didn’t have to deal with constituent problems but I could continue to run the faction, so I could then fill parliament both state and federal with good people.”

It’s unlikely too many senators on any side of that chamber will be thanking Bastiaan for suggesting they have nothing to do all day but play political games, and certainly aren’t ever bothered by “constituent problems”.

Most senators are busy even when parliament isn’t sitting. They’re frontbenchers, or they’re chairs or deputy chairs of committees. If they’re on the crossbench, committee work is the only way they have of effecting change or raising their profile. But, as Bastiaan reminds everyone, they don’t have constituents like House of Reps MPs do, beyond the vague notion that the whole state or territory is their constituency.

But, inexplicably — save for reasons of rivalry between the two houses — senators are given four electorate office staff just like Reps MPs (some MPs are allowed five electorate office staff if they have to maintains two or even three offices to cover large electorates).

That means around 900 electorate office staff are funded by taxpayers, notionally for enabling MPs and senators to deal with the daily work of representing communities — acting as contact points, trying to solve problems constituents raise, organising events, handling correspondence.

Spend any time in an MP’s office and you’ll see that’s exactly what most of them do. But many MPs also use the positions for loyalists, relatives of other members, protegés and factional operatives. There is no requirement for MPs to advertise such positions for external applications. They skirt the rules around not employing relatives, and against electorate office staff engaging in partisan political work.

There are similar rules at state level; in Victoria, these rules were not so much skirted as blatantly violated by Victorian Labor in the “redshirts” scandal.

While there’s now a bespoke independent body for vetting the travel expenses of politicians and staff, oversight of electorate office staff is by the Department of Finance under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act, rather than the Public Service Act. It’s a mechanism ripe for abuse — electorate office staff operate in the same twilight world of non-accountability of the MOPS Act that ministerial advisers operate in.

That also allows bullying and harassment to go on within electorate offices, usually in secret, given it is in the interests of political parties to keep such matters quiet even if it involves their opponents. All sides of politics have their bullies and sleazes who make the lives of their staff a misery; drawing attention to one is likely to end up backfiring for all parties.

The only way to bring to an end the practice of using electorate office staff for political activities is for significantly tougher financial penalties — say, MPs being required to pay back a multiple of the salary of staff found to have engaged in political work as part of their job — wielded by an independent body. The Australian National Audit Office could be given funding to conduct audits and spot checks of electorate office staff, using the phone records and documents produced within electorate offices.

Most MPs and their staff do the right thing. But their parties’ failure to rein in half-smart factional players who insist on rorting taxpayer funding undermines the whole system — and certainly undermines what’s left of public trust in parliament.

Peter Fray

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