• Sat. Oct 23rd, 2021

Shining the spotlight on Labor’s faceless men

Oct 10, 2021

The state’s anti-corruption watchdog is set to scrutinise Victorian Labor Party politics, powerbrokers and branch operations over the next five weeks in public hearings that begin on Monday.

The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission will investigate allegations of “serious corrupt conduct” and misuse of public money by serving and former Labor politicians.

Premier Daniel Andrews will have to weather the storm as IBAC hears evidence, and allegations, against Labor figures. Credit:Eddie Jim

It will grill federal and state Labor MPs, as well as their electorate and ministerial staffers, over allegations they directed taxpayer-funded staff to perform party-political activities during work hours.

IBAC will also probe allegations that public money intended to fund community groups was misused for party-political “or other improper purposes”.

How did we get here?

Adem Kubilay Somyurek was at the height of his political power in early 2020. He had returned to cabinet a year earlier after being forced to resign over bullying allegations.

An investigation by The Age and 60 Minutes in June 2020 exposed the branch stacking by Somyurek and his allies, who used taxpayer-funded staff for party-political purposes. He was driven out of cabinet, the Labor caucus and then the Labor Party, and inquiries were launched by IBAC and the Victorian Ombudsman.

Adem Somyurek accused Premier Daniel Andrews of branch stacking during an extraordinary speech in Parliament in December. Credit:Jason South

The man, who in secret recordings boasted he was more powerful than any factional warlord and declared “f— the Premier”, will now be interrogated at public hearings.

But it won’t be just branch stacking that comes under the microscope over the next five weeks. IBAC has been scrutinising “allegations that public money intended to fund community associations was misused for party-political work or other improper purposes”.

Two of the schemes that will be examined include multicultural and responsible gambling grants that were aligned with Somyurek allies.

Victorian politicians, and particularly Labor MPs, were put on notice in March 2018 that using taxpayer-funded staff for Labor Party activities breached guidelines and was not allowed. The so-called “red shirts affair” dogged Labor in its first term and embarrassed the government. It vowed to pay back the money and clean up its act.

Where to from here?

Federal Labor MP Anthony Byrne will be among the first to give evidence at IBAC, which kicks off at 10.30am. The names of all the people who will be called as witnesses remains unclear – many in the party have heard rumours, but very few know who has been ordered to give evidence.

What does seem clearer is the investigation will likely change the face and make-up of the Labor Party. The Victorian branch has already been transformed since the national executive wrested control in the wake of the media expose.

Premier Daniel Andrews will now face some tough weeks as he simultaneously manages the pandemic, the embattled healthcare system, the economy as the state begins to reopen and allegations of impropriety against some of his MPs.

“You’re all free to ask me as many times as many questions as you want but if I can kind of put a stake in the ground today, I don’t intend to run a commentary on it,” the Premier said on Sunday. “It wouldn’t make much sense for me to be running an inquiry jointly with [journalists] while IBAC were doing that very same work. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Will it irreparably damage “Teflon Dan”?

“I can see this being one of two things for Daniel: one is that it will be an annoying distraction that’s going to cause him to answer uncomfortable questions about his MPs and ministers,” one Labor source said.

“Two, he’s not going to mind the distraction from the COVID stuff. This isn’t going to be a surprise for a lot of people who expect politicians to be dirty, they expect staff to be doing party work for Labor or the Liberals. We’re not worried about that perception because voters expect this to be part of the rough and tumble of politics. We’ve set the bar so low, people aren’t fazed any more.”

While Andrews has never been under serious internal threat, there has always been discussions over who his successor will be. Although the Right is the dominant faction in the party and Parliament, it has been consistently divided over which MP it would back for leader. The past year has led to further divisions, and the IBAC probe now gives more cover for Andrews to neuter, or even fell, his enemies.

“The Premier is ruthless – any time there’s a malfeasance claim at IBAC, he’ll just send them to the crossbench,” another Labor figure says.

“He wouldn’t care if he has been friends with someone for 20 years. Bang, he’ll just shoot them. He will just do whatever is best electorally and start shooting anyone who is a liability.”

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