A Labor Party member who had his membership renewed multiple times after he died was also repeatedly enrolled in the party in the final years of his life – after he had been diagnosed with dementia.
Premier Daniel Andrews fiercely defended his factional ally Lily D’Ambrosio on Tuesday after revelations a Lalor South branch that regularly met in her electorate office was accused of forging the signatures of deceased people on membership forms.
At least two people on the branch’s member list, Antonio Donato and Celstino Negro, died in 2017 but had their annual memberships renewed for two years through to 2020.
Branch memberships are a point of influence within the Labor Party, with larger member rolls providing factional leaders with more votes at state conferences to shape party policy, control internal leadership positions and influence which MPs are preselected as candidates.
On Tuesday, D’Ambrosio distanced herself from the allegations against the branch by describing them as inferences and stating that she had not been a member of the branch for years. The Mill Park MP said she had moved to a different branch a “number of years ago” and was now a member of the Brunswick branch because that was where she lived.
But The Age has obtained leaked documents confirming that D’Ambrosio was a Lalor South branch member as recently as 2015, providing her office address as her main contact point. D’Ambrosio has been a Labor Party member for decades.
Donato was on the same member roll as D’Ambrosio at that time – four years after he had been diagnosed with dementia.
His son, Tom Donato, confirmed that his father was diagnosed with dementia in 2011 and died in 2017. His 2017 obituary published in the Italian newspaper Il Globo asked for donations to Alzheimer’s Australia.
Tom Donato said he had no idea that his father was a Labor member and that Antonio never spoke about politics. “I don’t understand how he became a member in the first place,” he said.
When asked how it happened that the signatures were forged, Andrews replied: “Well did it? Who did that?”
Donato said the premier’s comments dismissing the issue were an “absolute joke”. “How can you deny anything like that?” he said.
“Clearly there’s a signature on a form somewhere and money’s been paid for someone who’s been deceased ... There’s no denying this, it’s black and white. Somebody’s done something that’s illegal.”
Donato said his father lived in Thomastown and attended an Italian club where D’Ambrosio would regularly speak. Records show that more members were enrolled at the Lalor South branch in 2007 – when Donato was signed up – than any other year over the last decade.
By the time a Victorian branch-stacking investigation was launched in 2020, these 34 names signed up in 2007 made up a quarter of the branch’s total roll.
Andrews defended D’Ambrosio – a factional ally – on Tuesday and insisted there was “no comparison” to be made with allegations of industrial-scale branch stacking within Victorian Labor, revealed by The Age and 60 Minutes in 2020.
Those revelations triggered the resignation of four ministers and saw the premier instruct the then attorney-general, Jill Hennessy, to refer the allegations to both Victoria Police and the state’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC).
Former Labor premier Steve Bracks and ex-federal MP Jenny Macklin were also recruited to audit memberships.
Leaked documents from their probe published in The Australian show that only 13 of the 132 members signed up by the Lalor South branch – associated with D’Ambrosio – remained members after a branch stacking review.
On Tuesday, D’Ambrosio said the reports suggested fake memberships at the branch had been examined when the party was in administration, but she was not spoken to.
“Certainly no findings were made by the same review into these matters,” D’Ambrosio said.
“I’ve always expected my electorate office staff to abide by party rules, and importantly, also abide by the terms of their employment contract.
“To my knowledge, that’s what they’ve done.”
D’Ambrosio said that before 2020, when updated advice was provided about the use of parliamentary resources, it was not uncommon to hold branch meetings in electorate offices.
A 2022 investigation by IBAC and the Ombudsman, titled Operation Watts, found that forging signatures was “accepted, or at least tolerated” by parts of Labor’s Moderate faction “when it was necessary to achieve a desired factional result”.
“Forging of signatures is obviously serious misconduct,” the report said.
In question time on Tuesday, Andrews made a statement to the families of those who learned their family members had been used to pad out Labor branches. “No one wants to deliberately cause offence to anybody,” he said.
“And to the extent that anybody associated with the Australian Labor Party has caused offence to the individuals named, mentioned, then of course we are ... sorry that has occurred.”
The revelations triggered factional finger-pointing as members of Labor’s Left and Right groupings sought to blame each other for leaking information about the memberships.
This is now set to become a flashpoint in the jostling to elect a new state secretary to lead the state branch.
Opposition Leader John Pesutto referred the matter to IBAC and called on Andrews to sack D’Ambrosio from cabinet. “Daniel Andrews can’t have one standard of behaviour for his enemies, and one standard for his friends. He has to be consistent here,” he said.
“It’s an affront to multicultural communities who have been used by the Labor Party. It’s an affront to the families of the deceased.”
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