Federal electorate conference chairs in 14 Victorian seats are campaigning for a virtual state council of the Liberal party – a sortie which party insiders fear is an effort to scuttle a forensic audit to deal with fresh branch stacking allegations.
Labor has ratcheted up pressure on Scott Morrison to take action after fresh allegations were aired by the Nine network last weekend about Liberal party branch-stacking orchestrated by a conservative party powerbroker with links to the Victorian frontbencher Michael Sukkar and veteran MP Kevin Andrews.
The Victorian branch of the Liberal party has promised a substantial investigation into the allegations. A planned audit will determine whether party members signed up in the past five years are genuine members.
But Guardian Australia understands the FEC chairs in Menzies – Andrews’s seat – Deakin – Sukkar’s seat – and Flinders – Greg Hunt’s seat – have launched a campaign to convince their peers to lobby for a digital state council, a push which is being interpreted internally as an effort to scuttle the audit.
Correspondence seen by Guardian Australia from the FEC chairs declares the Liberal party organisation in Victoria is failing to adapt to “the new normal we find ourselves in” and it says voting rights have been suspended in the branch because “on the current trajectory, our party will be unable to hold any democratic preselections or any state council meetings before the next state or federal elections”.
The letter circulating within the Victorian division says “a potential constitutional crisis” looms for the party if no state council is held in 2020, because the administrative committee of the party “appears to have no constitutional power to extend their term beyond 31 December 2020, and may be unable to validly make decisions after that date”.
Sukkar declined to comment on Sunday. Party conservatives contend the weekend push by FEC chairs is about democratic participation in the Liberal party, not about the looming audit. Sources say the democratisation fight has been roiling in the division since March.
Relations within the division are poisonous because of entrenched factional brawling and jostling over preselections, which have been suspended because of the pandemic.
There have been credible reports for some time that conservatives in Victoria have been involved in mass recruitment exercises designed to alter the character of grassroots Liberal party membership. The recruitment drive has been active among conservative church groups looking for a home after the collapse of the Christian micro-party Family First.
Conservatives Sukkar, the assistant treasurer, and Andrews, the veteran backbencher and former defence minister, have denied any wrongdoing in response to the latest allegations.
Both MPs have asked the secretary of the finance department to undertake an independent review of the staffing arrangements in their electorate offices.
The initial Nine report last weekend alleged that Marcus Bastiaan, a conservative backroom operative who resigned from the Liberal party last week, organised staff to recruit members to boost the position of the faction while they were employed by Andrews. Drawing from leaked messages and memos, subsequent reports have alleged Sukkar was part of a scheme to use taxpayer-funded electorate officers to recruit party members.
Labor has called on Scott Morrison to intervene, but the prime minister said last week his first priority was dealing with the pandemic. Morrison said it was appropriate that the finance department had been engaged to review the allegations.
There is also a view in the Victorian division that the senior Liberal, treasurer Josh Frydenberg, needs to assert some personal authority to end the war between the factions, and improve party culture.
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, says Morrison is applying a double standard. Albanese said last week when branch-stacking allegations against Labor figures, including the Victorian government minister Adem Somyurek, were aired by the Nine network earlier this year, “a minister was gone by the morning [and] a minister was expelled from the Labor party the very next day”.
“By Tuesday the branch had been intervened in, Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin appointed to administer the branch, and [there was] widespread action from myself and Daniel Andrews.”
Albanese said that when the Labor allegations were aired, “Morrison said this was a test for me. Now, once again, a bit like aged care, he’s saying it’s not his responsibility.
“Well, someone needs to tell Scott Morrison that he’s actually in charge of the Liberal party.”