Victoria’s Labor government is facing weeks of public hearings into allegations of the misuse of public funds.
The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (Ibac) has already claimed a political scalp with the resignation of state government Minister Luke Donnellan.
Public hearings started on Monday as part of the investigation Operation Watts. The first witness, Anthony Byrne, the federal Labor MP, gave evidence of a vast branch stacking operation that was out of control.
On Wednesday, Labor staffer Adam Sullivan - who worked for Byrne, Adem Somyurek, the alleged architect of the branch stacking scheme, and former Andrews government minister Marlene Kairouz – will give evidence.
Earlier this week, Byrne said Luke Donnellan, a minister in the Andrews government, had paid for party memberships as part of their factional operation. Donnellan resigned hours later, admitting a breach of party rules, but denying he misused public funds.
The commission also heard from Labor staffer Ellen Schreiber, an electorate officer for Byrne and former ministerial office executive assistant to Somyurek, who said that up to 80% of her days were spent doing factional work while being paid by the taxpayer.
What is Ibac investigating?
Operation Watts is exploring whether public funds were used to fund political work – work that benefits the Labor party, or more specifically, a particular faction of the party, rather than the taxpayer.
It is investigating if publicly-funded staff members in electorate or ministerial offices performed any alleged political work (rather than performing work for the MP or minister that would benefit constituents).
It is also investigating if community associations were given Victorian government grants that were misused to fund political work or for other improper purposes, and, if so, whether those involved in allocating the grants did so knowingly or recklessly.
More broadly, it will investigate whether any public officers (a group which includes MPs and their staff) or their families or associates gained benefits from either publicly-funded staff or grants, and whether the “systems and controls in place” and “organisational culture and practices” fostered the conduct or hindered attempts to stop it.
The ombudsman is assisting with the investigation.
What about the alleged branch stacking?
Branch stacking is the recruitment of large numbers of party members – often from a particular ethnic background – who will then vote along factional lines to support preferred candidates in pre-selection or other political contests. The practice is neither illegal nor the type of activity that, in and of itself, would be subject to an Ibac investigation. What the commission is exploring is the financial and political framework that supports branch stacking.
It can be easier, for example, to recruit party members if a senior figure within a particular community is offered a position as an electorate officer, in exchange for providing members to a faction. Similarly, if a government grant is provided to a particular multicultural organisation, on the understanding that has only occurred because of the generosity of a particular Labor faction, that can assist in recruiting members, and therefore branch stacking.
Ibac is investigating how Labor factions recruited members and kept these members onside, rather than simply whether these members were used to allegedly stack Labor branches.
What can we expect from the rest of the public hearings?
The commission has not provided a witness list for the entire hearings, and those summoned to appear are often prevented from declaring so publicly. It is also unclear how far back the investigation will go, making it even more difficult to predict who could appear. But it is likely that current and former MPs, party staffers, prominent community leaders and factional heavyweights will be called upon. Given secret video and audio recordings regarding alleged branch stacking were captured in Byrne’s office, it could be that more members of the federal Labor party are also called upon.
Ibac holds public hearings far less regularly than its New South Wales counterpart, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which has greater powers. Public hearings are typically used to present evidence to witnesses that has been obtained during the course of the investigation, often using covert means such as telephone intercepts.
The hearings are expected to run for five weeks, but the schedule beyond Wednesday has not been released.
We have still not heard any substantial evidence relating to the allocation of government grants as part of a branch stacking enterprise, but Ibac has made clear it is a focus of these hearings. Counsel assisting, Chris Carr SC, says that the relationship between MPs or party officers and the Australian Light Foundation, Cambodian Association of Victoria and Somali Australian Council of Victoria will be the subject of questioning.
What does this mean for the Andrews government?
Allegations of branch stacking related to the Labor party itself, rather than the state government. But Daniel Andrews can expect some blowback, given he has been premier since 2014 and the leader of the party since 2010. How likely it is that the commission causes him serious damage depends on who you ask. He had no direct oversight over any of the grant programs coming under scrutiny. As state premier, he also had little time or need to dabble in branch politics.
The final point Ibac is investigating, however, could be the one of greatest concern to Andrews: whether the “systems and controls in place” and “organisational culture and practices” were adequate. Did Andrews preside over a party and government that allowed this to happen? Should he have known it was happening? And, if he did know it was happening, what did he do to stop it?
A key focus of the investigation is expected to be why Robin Scott was replaced by Richard Wynne as multicultural affairs minister after the 2018 election. Scott later resigned his position in the ministry after the branch stacking scandal involving the moderates faction he was a part of was revealed by the Age. Scott told the Age he and his office had no involvement in branch stacking and Andrews was reported as saying Scott had assured him he had acted appropriately “at all times”.
Even if Andrews escapes personal scrutiny, the fact the investigation will closely examine the conduct of former ministers, and likely even current ministers, is again going to lead to questions about his government, which is the subject of a separate Ibac probe and has been subject to other investigations.
What does this mean for the federal ALP?
While the fallout from Ibac’s investigation, amid allegations of wholesale branch stacking within the Victorian branch of the ALP, has put pressure on Andrews, it could also taint the party federally.
Anthony Albanese is facing a federal election. He would not want to begin a campaign with these allegations aired in public, and from Byrne, a senior federal MP. This brings the party’s activities into sharp focus and serves to highlight the factional maneuvering of the ALP.
Albanese said on Tuesday he would be standing by Byrne – despite the admissions he had made to breaching party rules – as he did not want to pre-empt the outcome of the Ibac investigation.