Opinion

The spectacular fall of Adem Somyurek

It took a carefully orchestrated sting lasting 12 months to rid the Australian Labor Party of a strongman few could tolerate any longer. But the fall of factional warlord Adem Somyurek has ramifications well beyond the borders of his Victorian fiefdom.

Somyurek made sure of that himself when he boasted in secret recordings aired last weekend on 60 Minutes that his influence went to the top of the Labor Party in Canberra. He was heard asking, “Who’s going to protect Albo?” That gave the prime minister a line of attack in parliament.

Seizing on a reference to the quote in a front-page headline in The Age, Morrison asked of the Labor leader: “Who does he need to be protected from?” The prime minister said the “issue raises many questions” and “undoubtedly the leader of the opposition will attempt to answer them with, I hope, candour that at least matches that of the Victorian premier”.

On morning television, Albanese said of Somyurek that he had “barely met the bloke”. He said no one watching the program outside Victoria, “including my federal colleagues, would have heard of this bloke. It is as simple as that.” And no doubt big-noting yourself is stock in trade for backroom operators anxious to enhance the myth of their influence and power. “He was a delusional prick,” was one senior Labor figure’s assessment of Somyurek. Maybe so, but it took extraordinary means to bring him down.

At face value, there is a deep irony in Somyurek, who is from the party’s Right faction in Victoria, talking of protecting Albanese – from the party’s Left in New South Wales. Maybe he had plugged in to the fact the Victorian Right isn’t all that thrilled their factional allies in Sydney had split from them in supporting Albanese for the federal leadership. In the end, Albanese took it uncontested when the Right couldn’t agree on a candidate to run against him.

Party sources say Albanese is well aware of these continuing misgivings and claim it is spooking him into appeasing all sides on contentious issues. In fact, a number in caucus and the shadow cabinet were very unhappy with the leader’s “each-way bet” tactics on legislation outlining mandatory sentences for child abusers, which passed through parliament this week. They say he unnecessarily allowed the government to wedge them on a bill the opposition was always going to support.

Historically, Somyurek had played a part in making a deal with a section of the Left to protect Bill Shorten’s leadership. It’s all very byzantine, but the Balkanisation of Victorian Labor over the past decade was scarcely noticed by the voting public. Premier Daniel Andrews won the last state election with 57 per cent of the two-party preferred vote and Shorten managed 53 per cent in Victoria at last year’s election.

Somyurek was relentless in pursuit of his dominance of the state party and who it should endorse for the state and federal parliaments. But this naked grab for power was not a pretty sight. He lost his ministry spot in 2015 after his female chief of staff lodged a formal complaint alleging repeated bullying and abusive behaviour. He was also involved in an incident in the parliamentary dining room in 2018, when it was alleged he brandished a butter knife during a “robust exchange” with Labor colleague John Eren. Somyurek has denied picking up a knife during the conversation or threatening Eren.

Some say Somyurek’s crude bullying and threatening of senior Labor MPs went all the way to the top – to Premier Andrews, and Shorten when he was the federal Labor leader.

The television exposé had Somyurek boasting he controlled nearly two-thirds of the Victorian Labor Party and that he was running an “industrial scale” branch-stacking operation that would entrench his supremacy.

At least 4000 of the party’s 16,000 Victorian members now have a question mark over them. In the covert recordings, Somyurek also named six federal MPs who owed him. But it’s the way in which it is alleged Somyurek achieved this dominance – claims of fake membership forms and wads of cash to fund them – that has raised serious questions of illegality and has seen Andrews refer him to Victoria Police and the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission.

Speculation has been rife around parliament this week as to who co-operated with the Nine media investigation. It has all the hallmarks of an inside job. A hidden camera in the office of Somyurek’s friend and ally Anthony Byrne, the federal member for Holt, caught some of the dirty dealings. Byrne is saying nothing, but in a statement acknowledged he is assisting police and anti-corruption authorities in their investigation. It is known in the party that one of his staff was overlooked for a seat in state parliament despite Somyurek’s assurances they would get the nod.

But Somyurek’s exercise of power, matched only by his misogynistic and homophobic language, meant his enemies were legion. On Monday night, Albanese said he thought it had been “a very good day” for Labor. He welcomed Andrews’ swift action in stripping Somyurek of his ministry and his membership of the parliamentary party. At Andrews’ request, Somyurek was also expelled from the party by the federal executive, which went even further and slapped a life ban on him.

Labor’s federal executive has now appointed party elders Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin to administer the Victorian ALP until next January. In the meantime, they will audit the state’s membership and come up with reforms to prevent a future scandal.

“We need to clean this up and we will,” said Andrews. He said he’s not “mucking around”. It was almost a reprise of the words of then Queensland Labor premier Peter Beattie when he was hit by a similar scandal with preselection rorting some two decades ago. Beattie famously said the people of Queensland want to kick the Labor Party in the bum, “and I’m doing it”.

Fellow Queenslander Wayne Swan, now federal president of Labor, says there was a comprehensive inquiry then, rules were changed, the culture was changed and the “party in Queensland was the better for it”. Swan, like Shorten and others, was shocked by the scale of the Victorian scandal. But he says Labor is not alone when it comes to these problems. “In fact,” he says, “former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull famously secured his seat in parliament through branch-stacking.”

In his book A Bigger Picture, Turnbull talks about the “great Wentworth branch-stacking drama” wherein he recruited 1500 new members, and his rival, Peter King, just as many. At $95 for a married couple, he writes, it wasn’t cheap. Who footed the bill and how, Turnbull does not say, but there were no hidden cameras there, much as there still isn’t a federal anti-corruption commission to investigate any suspicion of malfeasance.

Who can blame the government for enjoying Labor’s discomfort at the moment? Especially with the Eden-Monaro byelection race entering its final weeks, anything that tarnishes Labor’s brand is a gift. But the government’s long-finger treatment of a federal integrity commission as a “second-order issue” – as Morrison called it on becoming prime minister – is becoming inexcusable. Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus says the government is “terrified of being held to account”. And there’s persuasive evidence to back his claim. The promised draft legislation for a federal watchdog still has not materialised – in fact, it has missed its set deadline by almost six months.

And in the house of representatives on Tuesday, the government, for the second time since the election, gagged debate of the Greens bill, passed by the senate, to set up a strong independent commission. From sports rorts to the letter sent from Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s office to The Daily Telegraph that inflated Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s travel expenses, there is no shortage of questions such a body could investigate.

Is it any wonder the Coalition government doesn’t want to set up a watchdog that would almost certainly put it in the dock? Well no, but Morrison and his attorney-general, Christian Porter, have no intention of doing this. Their model would not see the commission have powers anywhere near approaching those of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). It could not initiate inquiries but would have to wait for a government referral. Hearings would not be in public and politicians would be exempt from scrutiny.

Porter says he will begin talking to the crossbench again about his preferred model and that “Centre Alliance would be absolutely pivotal to this”. Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick is not impressed with what he’s seeing or hearing. He says the government needs to move on what he calls the “ICAC legislation” because there is “a general community expectation that issues of federal corruption need to be addressed”.

Albanese was dead right about one thing earlier in the week when he said the 60 Minutes revelations did nothing to enhance the already low standing of politicians and the political process.

Daniel Andrews looked and sounded as though he had got the message. Our national leaders need to take note for all our sakes.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2020 as "I don’t know him from Adem".

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Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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