The Victorian ALP has failed in a legal bid to shut down a campaign by a dissident member to expose alleged branch stacking.
The decision in the Victorian Supreme Court on Friday afternoon meant veteran transparency activist Eric Dearricott would retain access to party membership records, which he said proved the widespread use of pre-paid gift cards to stack branches in Victoria.
The party had sought an injunction to force Mr Dearricott, who sits on the Victorian ALP’s membership administration committee, to hand over the membership records.
However, Supreme Court Justice Kim Hargrave ruled that Mr Dearricott should retain hard copies of the records.
Justice Hargrave ordered that Mr Dearricott turn over any electronic copies of the records to the party, but that he should be allowed continued to access to the electronic records at party headquarters, which will allow him to continue his campaign against the alleged stacking.
The party, through legal firm Slater and Gordon, had argued that it risked legal action from the Commonwealth Bank, which provides the E-Way electronic payments system used by the party, if it allowed Mr Dearricott continued access to the records.
Georgina Schoff QC, for the party, said the bank demanded confidentiality of customer records as a condition of providing the system.
The party pointed to media reports that apparently drew on the confidential records as evidence that they were being inappropriately used by somebody on the membership administration committee.
However, Justice Hargrave expressed frustration that the party had resorted to “urgent” legal action, saying that it was an issue that should arguably have been resolved by discussion between Mr Dearricott and the party hierarchy.
A number of supporters of Mr Dearricott were in court, including former Victorian Premier John Cain, as were senior party officials and members of the membership committee.
Members of the committee were granted access to the highly-sensitive membership records in recent months after signing an undertaking not to divulge credit card details within.
Allegations of misuse of gift cards
However, as media reports of apparent irregularities began to emerge, access was shut off and threats of legal action made by the party hierarchy.
Media reports have alleged widespread use of the pre-paid gift cards, which can be purchased and used without the buyer providing any identification, to sign up ALP members without their knowledge, or to pay for large numbers of memberships to cement control of branches in several Victorian electorates.
However, in leaks to other media outlets, opposing sources apparently aligned to the party hierarchy have denied that the rorting is widespread or systemic, and said the party is working to stamp the practice out.
An investigation by party veterans Garth Head and Liz Beattie — ordered by the party leadership — identified some irregularities and called for a purge of hundreds of Victorian members of the party.
However, critics have questioned whether the investigation uncovered the full extent of the problem.
Transparency campaigners have said the investigation focused only on the use of credit cards to purchase multiple memberships, rather than the allegedly rampant use of pre-paid gift cards to heavily stack branches in Melbourne’s north and west.
Labor faces struggle in Wills
The legal action against Mr Dearricott also came as the party prepared for a potentially bruising pre-selection ballot in the formerly rock-solid Labor-held electorate of Wills.
The pre-selection, triggered by the impending retirement of MP Kelvin Thomson, is shaping up as a battle between former Labor senator Mehmet Tillem, reviled by some in the party as an archetypal Labor factional operator, and whoever emerges as the candidate of the anti-Tillem forces, who are agitating for a local, female candidate who will hold off the encroaching tide of Greens support.
Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten is believed to be considering backing a female candidate against Mr Tillem, due to Labor’s stated goal of women filling 50 per cent of all party positions by 2025.
While some in the party, including opponents of Mr Tillem, have played down the extent of branch-stacking in Wills, others have said it is widespread and cannot help but affect the result of the pre-selection ballot.
Topics: government-and-politics, political-parties, alp, federal-government, australia