An attempt to replicate Obama-style campaigning by the Victorian Labor Party in 2014 has backfired, and the party has repaid $388,000 in taxpayer funds for staff hired as electorate officers working as field organisers.
The Ombudsman was called in to investigate the practice Labor put in place in 2014 to allow casual two days per week electorate officers pooled amongst sitting MPs – and paid for by the taxpayer – to mainly work as field organisers to help get Labor elected to government.
Some of those who were employed as field organisers said it was a "bit odd" they had a job as an electorate officer given they never applied for it.
The Community Action Network was set up by the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party for the 2013 federal election and the state election in 2014. It had its origins in the grassroots activism used by the US presidential campaign of Barack Obama, said Victorian Ombudsman, Deborah Glass, in a report released on Wednesday.
Labor recruited 25-30 field organisers for the campaign in 2014. They were informed that most of them would also be employed as casual electorate officers for MPs, positions which were paid for by the taxpayer.
Glass said some who were concerned about the mixing of government-funded roles and party political roles asked Labor MLC John Lenders, who was running the training, whether the arrangement was legal. According to the report, Lenders said that the arrangement was legal, but told organisers not to speak publicly about it.
Lenders told Glass that he said not to speak publicly about it not because of the lawfulness but because the arrangement could become "a political issue".
Twenty-one field organisers were employed as electorate officers in a pool arrangement, and five of those worked for more than one member of parliament at different times. They were paid for two days per week as electorate officers by the taxpayer, and three days as field organisers by the Australian Labor Party.
When they were field organisers, they were recruiting and training volunteers to win the election for Labor, which the party ultimately did at the 2014 state election, but the ombudsman found that even when working as electorate officers, the staffer's priority was the field work.
"Mr Lenders claimed that his design ‘morphed’ into something that was not
intended, but it appears that there was no attempt at the outset to separate
the roles," Glass said.
"Field Organisers received no training in electorate officer work at the training week; most did not receive the electorate officer handbook at any time during 2014; and most never used the parliamentary email system."
The report contains interviews with field organisers, and a Facebook post from one organiser where she reveals it to be a full-time job to be an organiser.
Glass said that the organisers themselves reported it was "a bit odd" they were told on the first day of work that they were going to be employed in a job for two days a week that they hadn't applied for, and were told they shouldn't tell anyone about.
The report found that 23 current and former Labor MPs authorised payment from the government of $387,842 to staff who were working in both roles.
Glass found that 21 of the 23 members of the ALP who signed off on the time sheets, including 11 current MPs, breached the parliament members' guide by signing off on the payments to electorate officers.
"The evidence is that MPs who participated in the arrangement and signed time-sheets believed it was legitimate and that they were contributing to an approved pooling arrangement," Glass said.
“But while they received little or no personal benefit from the use of parliamentary funds for campaigning purposes, which almost invariably benefited the election prospects of others, 21 Members of the 57th Parliament breached the members’ guide."
Victorian Labor premier Daniel Andrews said on Wednesday that, although not required to, the ALP has now repaid that money.
"They've been repaid in full. There's no recommendation in the report to do that. We have done that because we believe it is the appropriate thing to do."
He said that there were no recommendations in the report that action be taken against any of the MPs, and said the government has accepted all recommendations of the report, including a need to bring the members' guide into line with legislation around parliamentary expenses.
Josh Taylor is a Senior Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Josh Taylor at email@example.com.
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