Yet, as veteran Labor factional operative Kim Carr points out, branch stacking in any form has the potential to corrupt the democratic process. This is why Senator Carr, ALP reformer Andrew Giles and former federal attorney-general Michael Lavarch all want the Labor Party to investigate not only what Mr Somyurek did but how and why it was allowed to happen.
Mr Lavarch, the party elder who reviewed the governance of the NSW ALP after last year’s donations scandal, asks: “Is anyone falling off their chair in shock that there is an illustration of branch stacking occurring in one of the state branches of the Labor Party?
“I don’t think there will be too many jaws hitting the ground.
“This is not excusing the behaviour at all but there has probably been branch stacking in political parties from the time there has been political parties. It is a manifestation of raw politics in action.
“What should the party do in terms of reform? I have no doubt that the party in Victoria will have to step back, reflect and look at what has occurred, how it has occurred, to what extent rules and procedures enable it to occur and more importantly, what are the cultural drivers of the behaviour.”
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, national Labor leader Anthony Albanese and ALP national president Wayne Swan have each condemned Mr Somyurek, a profane caricature of backroom politics whose conduct is the subject of investigations by police and the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission.
The three leaders have reserved judgment, however, on whether allegations of corruption against Mr Somyurek should prompt a deeper examination of the culture and practices of the Victorian ALP. In the preferred language of contemporary politics, they will have more to say on this in coming days.
Mr Giles, a federal MP since 2013 and an influential figure within the Left of the Victorian ALP, has long argued that meaningful party membership is crucial to the health of the party. He argues that a flourishing local branch also helps to enforce membership rules designed to prevent branch stacking.
“What is the point of the branch meeting?” he says. “If the branch meeting’s point is to elect people to another forum to make other decisions, that is where you get the real frustration and the possibility of capture.
“The obvious bit that is missing is investing in membership as a more serious responsibility, not just of the local branch secretary, but the party as a whole.”
Senator Carr, a Labor member for 35 years, says that for as long as he can remember, branch stacking has been an issue in politics. He points out that Mr Somyurek’s alleged conduct was in flagrant breach of party rules introduced to limit the practice.
Under ALP rules, new members are not only supposed to sign their own application forms and pay their own party fees, they are supposed to do so by traceable means. The cash payments authorised by Mr Somyurek, in addition to the high volume of new members, should have been a red flag to anyone paying attention at ALP headquarters.
Senator Carr said the use of cash raised further questions about who, ultimately, had paid for the new members and what policy trade-offs they were seeking in return.
“If the process is so corroded, it destroys all credibility,” Senator Carr said. “That is why it is so dangerous. It undermines the fundamental principles of democratic control. It allows these elements to run the party. It means all your decisions are no longer legitimate.
“Of course you want to stop it. You want to clean up this corruption. There are no two ways around this. You are always trying to attract people to your cause, but you don’t get it any cruder than what we have here.”
Chip Le Grand is The Age’s chief reporter. He writes about crime, sport and national affairs, with a particular focus on Melbourne.