Labor Caught In Branch Stacking Scandal

Inside job won’t stack up

May 20, 2010

    Comments 28

    Illustration: Spooner

    Illustration: Spooner

    The Labor Party seems unable to exorcise the ghost of branch stacking.

    Costas Socratous and Telmo Languiller were koumbari – blood brothers in everything but blood. The two proud working-class migrant boys from the western suburbs were good for each other, and for the ALP. But it was a relationship that went much deeper than personal and political convenience.

    Costas is godfather to Telmo’s youngest son. Telmo was Costas’s patron and ticket to a better life.

    Telmo used to visit Costas in his West Sunshine home during the 1990s, while he (Languiller) was working for federal Labor MP Andrew Theophanous. They would yarn, and dream, over coffee.

    Telmo was the first to make good. In 1999, as Steve Bracks was elected premier, Languiller became the Labor member for Sunshine. Today, the former labourer is a parliamentary secretary – one rung down from cabinet.

    Soon after becoming an MP, Languiller took on Socratous as an electorate officer. He may not have had computer skills and the like, but in other ways the appointment made sense. Socratous had strong links across the local Greek community. He could deal with Languiller’s many Greek constituents – and he could encourage them to join the ALP.

    Languiller was keen to give his friend the sort of opportunities he himself had been afforded by the working man’s political party. He was able to show Socratous around the corridors of power in their new world. He met premiers and governors.

    Socratous, too, made good. In 2005, the former shoe machinist was elected to the Brimbank council. Like Languiller, he was a recognised leader of his community.

    Over the next few years he was at the very centre of the action in Labor’s heartland western suburbs, working two days a week for Languiller, two days for Languiller’s parliamentary patron, now-retired state cabinet minister Theo Theophanous, and the fifth day for federal Labor MP Brendan O’Connor, now a Rudd government minister.

    But now Costas and Telmo have fallen out, spectacularly. And the fallout from their falling out threatens a lot more than relations between the Socratous and Languiller families. It threatens the reputations of some of federal and state Labor’s biggest names. Indeed, it threatens, in an election year, the public standing of the Rudd and Brumby governments.

    Socratous has turned whistleblower, and he’s got a very loud whistle. As revealed in The Age this week, he says his main job over the past decade, while working in the MPs’ offices, was to systematically rort branch membership numbers, to the benefit of the Right faction of Languiller, Theophanous and, as it happens, John Brumby.

    No one disputes that Socratous was good at attracting members to the party. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that: members are the lifeblood of political parties, and all of them want more. But Socratous says he personally paid the membership fees of hundreds of people, using cash provided from MPs’ offices. If true, this is the classic definition of branch stacking, it is a blatant breach of party rules and it may well amount to fraud.

    And there’s more. Socratous claims he was acting under the direction of Languiller and Theophanous (although the alleged branch stacking was done in Languiller’s area, not Theophanous’s). Both men passionately deny the allegations, and both say they will welcome and fully co-operate with any inquiry.

    The allegations are a hand grenade in the Labor camp, for at least three reasons.

    First, this is a whistleblower with a difference. Socratous is not just telling tales about what he saw or suspected, he’s detailing what he says he did. And it turns out this electorate officer was a hoarder of files. He has got copies of ALP bank account statements, cheque butts, internal branch membership lists and annual payment and renewal forms to back up his sensational claims.

    Second, what Socratous describes is precisely what Labor factional warlords had been accused of for decades. In that sense, the Socratous allegations are a reminder of Labor’s unwillingness or inability to rid itself of such practices.

    Party elder statesmen Bob Hawke and Neville Wran famously wrote in a 2002 report on Labor’s woes that branch stacking was having a ”cancerous effect” on the party. Former premier John Cain in 2004 investigated disputed ALP membership applications in the northern and western suburbs – that is, Costas Socratous’s territory. Cain found branch stacking on ”a significant scale” involving MPs, their staff and factionally aligned members. ”These sorts of practices are corrupt and corrosive for the party,” he wrote. Sound familiar?

    The third big problem for Labor is that such is Socratous’s distrust of the party he used to devote much of his life to, he is refusing to co-operate with the internal investigation it has launched into his allegations.

    The breakdown in the relationship between the party and the former party activist was thrown into stark relief when the ALP investigator, state secretary Nick Reece, rang Socratous on Tuesday afternoon to ask him about the story splashed over the front page of The Age that morning.

    I’ve got no barrow to push here, Reece told Socratous; I have no personal interest in this; all I want to do is get to the bottom of it because I want a clean, open party.

    But Socratous told him, in almost as many words, to push off. I’m not going to help you, he said. I don’t trust the Labor Party. You cover up these things. I want an inquiry, too, but not an inside job.

    For a whole host of reasons, Labor may not be able to keep the response to this scandal in-house. Sometimes, when koumbari fall out, outside intervention is necessary.

    Paul Austin is Age state political editor.


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