With the fallout in Victorian Labor, attention has fallen on the practice of branchstacking. Branchstacking within political parties is not anything new and happens in all parties. The combination of low membership numbers and the closed, privately regulated nature of party preselections in Australia means it occurs but is usually only acted upon when the results go against the ruling grouping unless there is significant public scrutiny.
While other Labor state branches do have a history of branch stacking, the Victorian Labor rules provide particular incentives that do not exist, for example, within the New South Wales Labor rules.
In Victorian Labor, state and federal preselections (other than for the Senate) occur via a combination of a 50% local component from rank-and-file members and 50% votes from the Public Office Selection Committee (POSC). The 100 member POSC is elected by the State Conference which has 600 delegates.
Furthermore, the 300 rank-and-file delegates to State Conference are allocated to each federal electorate on the basis of the number of members in that electorate. The Federal Electorate Assembly (FEA) delegate results from 2019 give an indication of the divergent number of delegates each federal electorate gets, which reflects the likely location of stacking.
|FEA||Total||Socialist Left||Right||Industrial Left||Independents|
The party rules means that stacking in one geographic area has statewide implications for preselections because more State Conference delegates means more spots on the POSC, which can override the local component in preselections even if localised stacking does not result in a majority of the local vote. It results in horsetrading between groupings as a combination of enough of a local vote plus a bloc on the POSC can override the local component.
How does this differ to other states? Well NSW Labor is far from immune from branchstacking with historical examples in the inner city throughout the 1980s, Wollongong, Cabramatta, Liverpool and the Inner West in the 1990s and around Bondi in the mid-2000s. But where stacking occurred, its impact is more localised because of how preselections occur and the fixed number of indirectly-elected delegates from each state and federal electorate to NSW State Conference, regardless of the number of rank-and-file members who reside in an electorate. There is also no equivalent to the POSC, NSW Conference selecting the Upper House and Senate ticket.
The NSW Labor rules also include anti-stacking “tripwire” if five or more members apply to join a branch at one ordinary meeting or more than fifty members apply to join a branch at one formation meeting that freezes this. Some may argue this is more about maintaining existing control top stop challengers but it also makes the scenes in Tarnait less likely.
Though NSW Lower House preselections are notionally 100% rank-and-file votes, there was a previous N40 rule that could be invoked, which allowed a combination of 50% Administrative Committee and 50% delegates to the State or Federal Electorate Council (excluding the additional affirmative action weighting given to female candidates). The N40 rule (now N41) has not been used in recent times due to its extensive abuse by the Terrigal sub-faction of the NSW Right to impose its candidates in Lower House seats.
What it means is NSW Labor has a massively malapportioned delegate system that does not reflect the geographic distribution of membership to the benefit of the NSW Right who hold a majority at State Conference as a result. It also means there is less incentive for factional fragmentation to horsetrade like in Victoria and branchstacking does not have a strong statewide impact on preselections.
It is important to understand how party structures drive particular incentives if we are serious about party reform to tackle branchstacking in parties and to have true mass membership parties, otherwise changes will be ineffective and only ever be superficial.