News

As federal Labor MP Anthony Byrne is embroiled in Victoria’s branch-stacking probe, the party is watching to see who else may be called to testify in front of the commission. By Karen Middleton.

What are the Labor IBAC hearings actually about?

Anthony Byrne in Parliament House, Canberra, last year.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

Federal Labor MP Anthony Byrne has drawn at least one other federal parliamentarian into an anti-corruption commission examination of Victorian Labor Party activities, after confessing to putting someone on his taxpayer-funded payroll who he knew would not be coming to work.

Giving evidence to Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) this week, Byrne said he believed the man had later been transferred to the office of his Right faction colleague, Senator Kimberley Kitching.

Byrne said he employed the man, Hakki Suleyman, for months in 2018 or 2019 at the request of state factional powerbroker Adem Somyurek, despite having been told he would not actually be working at all.

Insisting he tried unsuccessfully to get Suleyman to show up, Byrne said he eventually decided he couldn’t “do it anymore” and stopped paying him.

He told the IBAC hearing on Monday he believed Suleyman had then been transferred to another office.

When Commissioner Robert Redlich, QC, asked Byrne where Suleyman went next, he said, “I think one was Senator Kitching’s office.”

“And I think there were some other offices,” he added. “But I’m not quite sure [who] else.”

Asked if this was under the same employment arrangement, he said he didn’t know.

Byrne described having agreed to also put on his payroll another man, Burhan Yigit, who he knew would not be doing any work.

He said Yigit controlled the votes of a large number of party members. Although he was Somyurek’s close associate, Yigit could not be employed in Somyurek’s office because of a “conflict of interest”.

Byrne admitted to the commission that he had also been aware that some kind of adverse finding had meant Suleyman was “disqualified” from working in a state government office. So Suleyman was being put on a federal taxpayer-funded payroll instead. Byrne said he had been reluctant to employ either man.

Counsel assisting the commissioner Chris Carr, SC, asked why he agreed to employ these people. “You allowed this arrangement to continue for months whilst he was being paid without him turning up,” Carr said.

“Correct,” Byrne replied, saying, “I felt like I had no alternative. Because to have denied that request would not have been healthy for my long-term future.”

He explained that the “retribution” he feared was implied, not explicit, and might have taken the form of abuse of his staff or his own “political execution” at preselection.

“The consequences of not doing it would be that I probably wouldn’t be sitting here before you today as a member of parliament,” Byrne replied. As deputy chair of federal parliament’s powerful parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, Byrne is a senior federal backbencher cleared to deal with top-secret national security information.

Having initially insisted he was staying on the committee, Byrne issued a statement on Thursday afternoon announcing he had resigned.

Soon after, federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese issued a statement thanking Byrne for his national security contribution and announcing that New South Wales left-wing senator and existing committee member Jenny McAllister would replace him as deputy.

Victorian Right MP Peter Khalil will fill Byrne’s vacancy on the committee.

As a federal MP, Byrne’s activities are beyond the legal jurisdiction of IBAC, which is restricted in its scope to examining the activities of Victorian state government employees.

Legislation governing IBAC also protects witnesses from being prosecuted based on their evidence. Should federal law enforcement agencies decide to investigate Byrne, they would need to seek to interview him and gather evidence separately from that which he presented in the witness box.

Earlier in the week, before Byrne resigned from the joint committee, Albanese defended him as a whistleblower and refused to accede to demands to remove him from his committee position or expel him from the Labor Party.

Albanese and senior colleagues have argued his whistleblower status should earn him some leniency and that moving against him could discourage other whistleblowers. But there was also hesitation because it was not clear what else might emerge in evidence before IBAC and whether any other federal Labor figures might feature.

“All I have said is we’ll wait while the hearings are going on,” Albanese told Radio 2GB on Thursday. “Halfway through people’s testimonies, you don’t reach a verdict. And we will deal with the issues when we have all of the information, that are being conducted at the moment through public hearing.”

With next week also marking the beginning of public hearings into whether former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian acted corruptly while in a secret five-year relationship with then MP Daryl Maguire, Albanese is seeking to turn attention to the Liberal Party.

He said that while IBAC was investigating Labor branch-stacking, state and federal Liberals in NSW and Victoria were also engaged in the practice. Moreover, the federal government’s proposed model for a national integrity commission would limit the scrutiny of politicians, without public hearings.

“These are all issues that the government [has] to confront,” he said. “And the difference between Labor and the Coalition is that I support a national anti-corruption commission with teeth.”

Byrne detailed extensive branch-stacking activities out of his own office and those of state colleagues over a period of years. He said when stacked members refused to surrender blank ballot papers to factional operatives, or vote the way they were told, they were forced to order new ballot papers and say they had made a mistake.

He also described electorate staff undertaking party-political factional activities during work time, particularly at the overall direction of Adem Somyurek.

Somyurek was sacked from the Victorian ministry in June last year after the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes program aired branch-stacking allegations and broadcast hidden-camera vision showing him disparaging a colleague. The camera was hidden in Anthony Byrne’s office.

The program also named two other state ministers, Marlene Kairouz and Robin Scott, in relation to branch-stacking.

IBAC began several weeks of public hearings this week as part of Operation Watts. The first days of the hearings laid bare the poisonous factionalism beneath the public allegations.

Byrne described seven subfactions within his own Victorian Right faction, most with links to various unions, and two within the Left. His revelations have exposed the depth of the factional warfare in Labor’s Victorian branch.

Chris Carr, SC, put it to Byrne that Victorian Labor’s “head office” had turned a blind eye to flagrant branch-stacking over the past five years. “I don’t know if I’d say ‘blind eye’, counsel,” Byrne said. “I would say ‘felt powerless to stop it’.”

Byrne said that after his own election – the result of a stacked preselection – he had struck a deal with the Socialist Left to stop branch-stacking in his south-east Melbourne seat and its surrounds. But this had begun to unravel in recent years.

Byrne said he and Somyurek had been friends and allies but had fallen out sometime in 2016 or 2017. Byrne attributed it to the “cumulative” effect of Somyurek’s angry and aggressive treatment of people, including staff.

Byrne said he also became increasingly concerned about the extent of Somyurek’s stacking activities, which had begun to get closer to his own area.

“I told him that I was going to leave in 2017,” Byrne said. “I was persuaded to stay, not by him but by some others in Canberra. So I’ve always been prepared to face political death, counsel. But it was more, I think, I was just concerned about people I cared about. I was concerned about the party. It was going off a cliff.”

When Somyurek was made a minister in the state government, Byrne said he assumed his branch-stacking would subside because he had achieved the level to which most MPs aspired. Instead, it increased.

Somyurek was “almost becoming an existential threat for the Labor Party”.

The pair had continued to communicate until September 2019, when Byrne became enraged at Somyurek’s treatment of staff, including one person to whom Byrne was particularly close.

Byrne’s frankness in the witness box has not endeared him to some other factional colleagues.

On Tuesday night, a suggestion emerged that he would quit politics.

Its first public airing was on Sky News, when a Victorian senator mentioned at the end of an interview that there was “a strong rumour” Byrne was going to resign.

“The ALP has rules and obviously recently the Victorian branch rules were redrafted to add more sections in, particularly probably around branch-stacking,” the senator said, when asked if Byrne should go. “We’ll see what the IBAC process … what happens there, but also the recommendations that IBAC is going to make.”

Program host Chris Kenny responded that it sounded like his guest wouldn’t “be too distraught if he does resign”. Then he thanked her: Kimberley Kitching.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 16, 2021 as "Buy the numbers".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.