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Bring out your dead: tales from the branch-stacking front

Those ghosts, he discovered, were duly signed up from the grave to certain Labor branches, there to vote as required by factional bosses in need of the most compliant of all followers.

Here was the bluntest of branch-stacking methods. Bringing the dead back to life.

My friend found he couldn’t abide the system, packed away his ambition and fled.

Branch stacking in various forms has been around almost as long as the ALP, which prides itself on being the oldest continuing labour party in the world.

It is not, of course, confined to Labor. Allegations that some Liberal branches in Melbourne have been stacked in support of the religious right have circulated in Melbourne for some years.

But the ALP, currently in branch-stacking turmoil, has had longer to practise.

The Australian Society for the Study of Labour History records that way back in 1917, the proprietors of a newspaper in Parramatta, The Cumberland Times, were accused of failing to support the Parramatta Labor League.

It was a convoluted argument, but when it came to the vote, one of the proprietors, Bill Ely, “stacked the branch by putting up 27 members, including members of his family….the meeting voted in support of what The Cumberland Times had done.”

Since then, the brute force of numbers has evolved into the darkest of arts among political machine men (and a few women).

If you can marshall the numbers, you can win arguments and power, and you can get your chosen parliamentary candidate pre-selected, leaving the unconnected to wonder what happened.

Unsurprisingly, “numbers men” become both the most respected operatives (by those who need their services) and feared (by those they oppose).

For many, the power is intoxicating.

Former Labor senator Graham Richardson, in his aptly-named autobiography, Whatever It Takes, described the feeling when Prime Minister Bob Hawke made him his numbers man as “a real charge, a surge of adrenaline; this was better than sex and almost as exciting as a good feed.”

Graham "Richo" Richardson: Being made a numbers man "almost as exciting as a good feed".

Graham “Richo” Richardson: Being made a numbers man “almost as exciting as a good feed”.Credit:Sasha Woolley

He had long experience: in the 1960s and early ’70s, he and mates like Paul Keating, Laurie Brereton, Leo McLeay and Bob Carr, had famously used their knowledge of numbers and a deal of brute force to defeat the Left and remake Labor’s fortunes.

The young Keating and Brereton clearly knew the importance of numbers: after one wild pre-selection meeting, the pair are said to have disappeared into the night mounted on a motorcycle with the ballot box between them.

Though factionalism was always deep, Labor didn’t talk about factions much until Bob Hawke won government in 1983 and formalised and made relatively respectable the factional system.

Some of the factional bosses took this licence to mean they could establish fiefdoms.

In time, long-active grassroots members began discovering themselves pushed aside for strangers introduced by the powerbrokers – and some of those new arrivals clearly had no idea what they were supporting or why, or even who might have paid their party memberships,

By 2002, party elders recognised the whole thing had got so malignant it was rotting the ALP from the inside.

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A review by former prime minister Hawke and former NSW premier Neville Wran declared branch stacking had a cancerous effect on the party. It was deadening branch life, because many of the recruited members have no commitment to the party.

The late John Button, who served as a minister in both Hawke and Keating ministries, offered his eloquent thoughts in a Quarterly Essay in 2002, Beyond Belief – What Future for Labor?

“Today’s factions are about arithmetic, not philosophy,” he wrote. “At best the factional warlords are masters of backroom compromises. At worst they are proof that even on the narrow stage of limited ambitions, power corrupts.”

As an investigation by this masthead and Nine’s 60 Minutes shows, he was right…and it never stopped.

Now the party has little choice but to bring out its own politically dead.

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