24 August 2020: Conservative powerbroker resigns

Marcus Bastiaan resigns, branch stacking

Today Liberal Party powerbroker Marcus Bastiaan resigned from the party following branch stacking allegations. Mr Bastiaan denies allegations of branch stacking but apologised for “foolish and stupid things in my twenties.” He turns 30 this year. 

Despite operating in Australia’s most progressive state, the Victorian Liberal Party has for a number of years had a reputation for courting conservative Christian voters, most notably people of Mormon faith and members of Evangelical churches. The Liberal Party, being a ‘broad church’, strives to bring together two quite different groups. Small ‘L’ liberals value individual freedom, free markets and are relatively comfortable with socially progressive reforms such as assisted dying laws, euthanasia and sex work decriminalisation. However, conservative Liberals are more likely to identify with religion, particularly Christianity, and generally oppose socially progressive policies. 

Fighting between these two groups within the Liberal party is known as the ‘internal culture war’, with the conservative faction seeking to utilise aggressive tactics to boost their numbers and dominance within the party. Mr Bastiaan was the most notorious of the ‘internal culture warriors’. Channel 9’s 60 Minutes TV show, caught him out saying:

“… change the [party] constitution … and open up preselections for 2020 when we’ve got the numbers all eligible, we’re locked in, we’re institutionalised, we’ve got our members in the Upper House, we’ve got a state director around our finger.”

Earlier in 2020 it was Victorian Labor’s turn to face branch stacking allegations. Now it’s the Liberals turn. There have been the usual apologies, some denials, excuses, promises of investigations and now Mr Bastiaan’s resignation from the party. And of course, let’s not forget those homophobic and racist leaked texts in 2018. What seems clear is that once again we see people in politics using aggressive, dirty and unethical tactics to grab power. Nothing particularly unusual here. 

Another Liberal Party figure named in the recent branch stacking allegations is Michael Sukkar, the Federal Assistant Treasurer and Housing Minister. Mr Sukkar’s words recorded and aired by 60 Minutes give us a clue as to what all of this means for sex work. In the tapes, Mr Sukkar wants to rid the Liberal Party of those who supported voluntary assisted dying:

“My view is there is four people in the Upper House on our side who have broken faith: Simon Ramsay, Bruce Atkinson, Mary Wooldridge, Ed O’Donohue. I think we can get rid of Simon Ramsay. We can potentially get rid of Bruce Atkinson, that’s harder, but we can, it is still in the mix. So that is two out of the four gone.”

Two Liberal Party figures front the conservative faction of the party have been caught out trying to get rid of the more moderate socially progressive Liberals. This is not a good look for the Christian conservatives and the scandal will not help them. 

Mr Sukkar sought to rid the Victorian Liberal Party from two (presumably) more socially progressive Victorian Liberal MPs – Edward O’Donohue and Bruce Atkinson. Both continue to sit in the Upper House of Victoria’s Parliament. And the Upper House is exactly where the Victorian Government needs opposition and crossbench support to get a sex work decriminalisation bill passed. 

Fiona Patten’s Sex Work Review continues and a sex work decriminalisation bill is expected. A scandal that weakens the far right faction of the Liberal Party and leaves the moderate Liberals in a secure position helps the prospect that a sex work decriminalisation bill could pass both houses of parliament.

Providing sex workers with human rights, dignity and legal rights shouldn’t be about factions, political parties and Christian groups. After all, according to the Bible, Jesus forgave a prostitute and showed kindness towards her (Luke 7, versus 38-47). But this is politics in 2020.

For anyone interested in the Liberal Party’s ‘internal culture war’ The Age’s senior journalist Farrah Tomazin is doing an excellent job covering this unfolding story.