End of a warlord: ‘We had to do it’
As the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes went to air on Sunday, many Labor MPs watched on, open-mouthed.
Branch stacking in political parties, especially their own, is nothing new, and allegations that Victorian Labor right-wing powerbroker Adem Somyurek was engaging in it were not exactly a surprise to those from his state.
But even those who knew an exposé was coming were shocked at what the secretly recorded video and audio tapes portrayed.
The kind of stacking being depicted – the alleged forging of signatures and exchanges of cash, violent standover tactics, the brazen secondment of taxpayer-funded staff to engage in bulk membership drives among ethnic communities and the direct threats being made to sitting federal and state MPs including the premier, all in very derogatory terms – was beyond what some had imagined.
Calls and messages crisscrossed the country, as Labor people discussed who might have made the recordings and what it would all mean.
In the federal party – and significant sections of Victorian Labor, too – shock quickly gave way to celebration and relief.
“It was one of the most courageous political acts I’ve ever seen,” one Labor MP says of the sting operation.
According to those who opposed Somyurek’s activities – and they come from both the Right and Left factions – his influence on Victorian Labor had become a cancer.
His alleged stacking had a flow-on effect: other MPs stacked back, also recruiting members to avoid having their branches taken over.
“Now I don’t have to worry about the branch stacking that’s in my seat,” one federal MP said of Somyurek’s demise. “I’m sure all of us feel this weight [lifted].”
Premier Daniel Andrews and the federal opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, exchanged text messages and spoke on the phone on Sunday night and again on Monday morning.
Andrews sacked Somyurek from his ministry and had him expelled from the Labor Party.
Two other Somyurek supporters who featured in the Nine report – Robin Scott and Marlene Kairouz – also resigned their ministerial positions.
Albanese condemned Somyurek and backed the Victorian premier, a close left-wing ally.
He asked Labor’s national executive to take charge of Victorian Labor and, within 48 hours, former premier Steve Bracks and former deputy federal leader Jenny Macklin had been appointed to lead a root-and-branch review. The pair will also oversee a full membership audit to weed out anyone signed up illegitimately, regardless of who recruited them.
For the time being, Victorian preselections for the next state and federal elections will be managed federally, removing the ability of any powerbrokers to use them as prizes or to make threats.
In the wider party, there are concerns this control is set for three years, although many expect it won’t last that long. Some in the Right are suspicious that Andrews and Albanese are using the crisis as a chance to build their own faction’s strength in that state.
But few deny some kind of intervention was needed.
The implications of the 60 Minutes sting stretch beyond state politics, with some of the images clearly captured on a camera hidden in the federal electorate office of a former associate of Somyurek, federal Victorian Labor MP Anthony Byrne.
Somyurek was recorded vowing to force Byrne out of parliament.
The government seized on that aspect of the revelations, highlighting Byrne’s position as deputy chair of the powerful parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, questioning his fitness to remain in the role.
Byrne has neither confirmed nor denied playing any part in the recordings, nor having any knowledge of them.
In a statement on Wednesday, he said he was assisting authorities.
“I welcome investigations into corruption, which has no place in the party I love,” he said. “Because I do not want to cross over or impede any investigations that may be occurring, I’m unable to comment further at this point in time.”
On Thursday, newspapers revealed the contents of leaked historical text messages between Byrne and Somyurek, which featured the former using derogatory language about Labor colleagues. Albanese said he had “counselled” Byrne for “completely unacceptable and inappropriate” language. He offered no further criticism.
A statement Byrne issued on Thursday suggested the leak was payback.
“Somyurek has selectively released a handpicked selection of my text messages to him sent over two years just hours after I made a public statement that I had contacted authorities and would assist with their corruption investigations into him,” he said. “That speaks for itself.”
Amid the scandal’s fallout, Somyurek’s support for former federal Labor leader Bill Shorten hasn’t gone unmentioned.
Somyurek was central to a breakaway group from the party’s industrial Left – involving unions including the controversial Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union – and parts of the Right, who combined in 2017 to throw out a factional “stability pact” negotiated years before.
Shorten tacitly – some say directly – supported the destruction of the pact, which he’d been involved in negotiating with then senator Stephen Conroy on behalf of the Right and Senator Kim Carr for the Left.
The pact’s destruction left Somyurek with increased power in Victorian Labor. And his activities since – carried out with seeming impunity – were what led to last weekend’s revelations.
This week’s intervention strengthens the influence of the current deputy Labor leader, the Right’s Richard Marles – an Albanese ally.
Asked what Somyurek’s removal would mean for the power balance in the Victorian Labor Party, federal Left faction convenor Andrew Giles said he doesn’t know.
“What matters much more than this is ensuring integrity in our processes and that in the future, the balance of power is determined by the strength of people’s arguments and ideas, not branch stacking,” he said.
Giles supported what Andrews and Albanese had done.
Shorten told The Saturday Paper he also backed the two leaders’ actions.
“It’s a very arrogant exercise,” Shorten said of the activities depicted in 60 Minutes. “There’s tens of thousands of people who work hard for the Labor Party from the rank and file to the elected members. It’s a kick in the guts for people to do things like this.”
Shorten renewed his call for a federal integrity body.
“I said from the 30th of January in 2018, we need a federal anti-corruption commission,” he said.
Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission and Victoria Police are now investigating the allegations against Somyurek.
Next Wednesday marks a decade since Labor factional powerbrokers moved against then prime minister Kevin Rudd to replace him with Julia Gillard.
Seizing on the word “corruption” in Anthony Byrne’s statement to attack Labor in parliament – and earning a rebuke from the Liberal parliamentary speaker, who forced him to withdraw it – Prime Minister Scott Morrison is not letting that anniversary slip by unnoted.
“It’s 10 years ago since the Kevin Rudd–Julia Gillard blow-up here in Canberra, and 10 years later, they’re still doing it,” he told 2GB.
Within Labor, many are saying they know nothing about who recorded the conversations aired on 60 Minutes. But others are hinting they may know more.
“This is a really tough struggle,” one says. “And we had to do it.”
Some are scathing about the fact so many in Victorian Labor did nothing to stop these kinds of activities, which they say have been going on, and getting worse, for years.
“You want to know how these gangsters survive?” one asks. “It’s because people look the other way.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2020 as "End of a warlord: ‘We had to do it’".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial