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Leaders must act to clean up party politics

But as The Age’s chief political correspondent David Crowe wrote on Friday: “Mr Sukkar is right in the middle of it. The Assistant Treasurer has climbed faster than others to reach a plum job in the ministry, and all his colleagues know how. Beneath his feet is an escalator powered by a database of dubious party memberships.”

Some have fallen on their swords. On Monday, Liberal powerbroker Marcus Bastiaan, who worked with the offices of Mr Sukkar and Mr Andrews to stack branches in his attempt to reshape the party in Victoria, handed in his membership.

And Alex Lisov, vice-president of the Young Liberals and a member of the federal executive, also quit the party after allegations that he discussed with Mr Bastiaan giving cash to a Liberal operative to pay for new members. He was also caught, in a leaked conversation with Mr Bastiaan, using disparaging language about a senator’s wife. The Liberal Party will be better place for their departures.

Mr Sukkar and Mr Andrews are hoping they can weather the storm, although Labor has set its sights on the scalp of the Assistant Treasurer. This week it launched a heated attack on Mr Sukkar and called for his resignation.

Michael Sukkar, the Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Housing.

Michael Sukkar, the Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Housing. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

There have been some moves to investigate the allegations. The government has called on the federal Finance Department to probe the work that went on inside the political offices in question, and the Victorian Liberal Party will conduct a review of its membership lists. But it falls well short of what is needed.

These allegations once again make the case for a national anti-corruption body with strong enough powers to investigate such practices. It’s almost two years since Mr Morrison announced his intention to establish a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, but it still appears some way off becoming a reality. The effective corruption-busting work being done by similar bodies at a state level in Victoria and New South Wales sometimes creates serious challenges to governments and their reputations, but that is no excuse for the Coalition to drag its heels on a federal version. Australians deserve better.

But even without such a body, there is still work that could be done. The foot soldiers of these latest branch-stacking allegations are electoral officers, who were called upon to spend their time attracting party members and potentially breaking the law in doing so.

As former Liberal opposition leader John Hewson pointed out this week, parliamentary staffers have little accountability beyond that to their member or senator. He made the worthwhile suggestion that they should sign up to a code of conduct, with significant penalties for breaches, and possibly ensuring they are scrutinised and accountable to a parliamentary committee.

It’s also time that Mr Morrison and Mr Frydenberg, who is Victoria’s most senior Liberal politician, took a more forthright public stand against the practice. It does the reputation of the Liberal Party, and the broader political system, little good to avoid the issue.

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At a time when Australians are relying on governments at all levels to make high quality decisions to tackle the health and economic fallout from the pandemic, we need our political parties to be robust, democratic forums that promote and nurture committed and competent politicians. If the parties are instead full of members who have been bought and sold in fake recruitment drives by factional powerbrokers on the basis of doing what they are told, the politicians they preselect be of questionable quality.

And that ultimately undermines the quality of public decision making.

It would be of great service to all of us if present-day political leaders of all persuasions do the hard work today to clean up their parties and ensure that merit, capability and character are what wins the day in internal party forums, rather than corrupt backroom deals.

Note from the Editor

The Age’s acting editor Michelle Griffin writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

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