The Victorian Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) is partnering with the Victorian Ombudsman to investigate allegations of branch stacking and misconduct by public officers. The investigation, entitled Operation Watts, has recommenced following three weeks of adjournment.
The IBAC hearings are related to allegations pertaining to the conduct of both public officers and Victorian Members of Parliament. Both The Age and 60 Minutes revealed alleged instances of branch stacking within the Victorian Labor Party in 2020.
Branch stacking is a means of gaining political power within a party by controlling and influencing membership, often to secure the preselection or nomination of a specific candidate. In many cases politicians may cover the fees associated with membership in order to incentivise their chosen members to join.
The practice of branch stacking can threaten the legitimacy of democratic processes which rely on earnestly earned votes. Although branch stacking is not illegal, the practice may be against party regulations. Both the Labor Party and the Liberal National Party require all members to buy their own memberships. Failure to comply with these rules can have consequences.
IBAC is also investigating whether Victorian Members of Parliament “are engaging in corrupt conduct while in public office by directing ministerial and electorate office staff to perform party-political work during times when those staff are paid from public funds to perform ministerial or electorate work,” according to the Operation Watts overview.
Following testimony from former minister Adam Somyurek, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is likely to be invited as a witness to provide further information. Mr Somyurek testified that he had raised concerns with Mr Andrews regarding 2018 findings that $338,000 of public funds were misused by the Labor Party.
Mr Somyurek was fired from Cabinet last year following allegations of branch stacking.
“[Andrews] said words to the effect of… ‘Do you want to win the election or not?’” Mr Somyurek testified.
The testimony is significant as Mr Andrews had previously claimed to have no knowledge of the scandal or the misused funds. Mr Andrews has denied to comment regarding Mr Somyurek’s testimony.
“I’m not getting into a debate or discussion about evidence that has been led by that witness or any witness,” he said.
“I wouldn’t do it if it was a court and I’m not doing it with IBAC.”
The inquiry is still ongoing.
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