Bill Shorten is to be congratulated on telling the Victorian ALP to investigate and eliminate its membership rorts, as exemplified by the latest branch-stacking scandal that has again humiliated the party and exposed it to public ignominy and disrepute.
There may never be a better opportunity to clean up once and for all the morass that has been exposed. The party must not let this opportunity be lost.
Shorten must now insist that the investigation into this disgraceful episode be truly independent.
Nothing short of an arm’s-length and fully transparent inquiry by an external nominee of unimpeachable integrity and stature, such as a retired Supreme Court judge or senior barrister, will ensure that justice is both done and is seen to be done.
To settle for less – to allow the inquiry to remain in factional hands – would be tantamount to entrusting foxes with the security of a hen house.
What is at issue here is fraudulent conduct that in any other sphere would be investigated and prosecuted as a criminal offence. The perpetrators and their protectors must be identified and expelled.
Authority for the appointee to require evidence under oath will be essential in order to expose and uproot the cancerous corruption within the Victorian ALP that for too long has been allowed to flourish unchecked.
Key questions needing to be addressed will include whether party office-holders and officials were aware of what was happening and, if so, when. Was there an involvement by either or both of the party factions and, if so, by whom was it authorised and to what effect?
Terms of reference for the inquiry must also include the rorting for factional advantage of the secret ballots provisions of the party rules that has resulted in the elevation to party office of some by whom a blind eye has been turned to the present abuses.
Factional operatives routinely require conference and pre-selection committee delegates to disclose their completed ballot papers, in order to ensure that they have voted in accordance with factional directives. Alternatively, delegates are required to hand over their blank ballot papers to be completed by the operatives on their behalf.
A familiar sight at the early stages of party conferences is queuing by delegates who attend for the sole purpose of receiving ballot papers, which they then turn over for completion by the operatives, before leaving and taking no further part in the proceedings.
The surrender or disclosure of ballot papers in circumstances where plainly it is not voluntary defeats the whole purpose of the mandated secret ballot, which is to ensure that the person voting can do so without fear of consequences if they vote in a way that is not a agreeable to another person.
Such interference would not be tolerated in the conduct of any parliamentary election. Any federal or state returning officer who failed to prevent it would be sacked.
For the ALP to continue condoning the factional subversion of its commitment to the secret ballot is for it to acquiesce in the lawlessness that the latest branch-stacking scandal exemplifies and thereby to live a lie and betray the trust of its members and supporters.
Race Mathews is an ALP life member, and a former chief of staff to Gough Whitlam, federal MP and Victorian state MP and minister. This article was first published in The Age on November 1, 2015.