Anthony Albanese is standing by Anthony Byrne after the federal Labor MP admitted to breaking party rules and misusing taxpayer resources in the first day of hearings into branch stacking in the Victorian Labor Party.
Byrne, the federal MP for the south-east Melbourne seat of Holt, has been giving evidence to the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, revealing he authorised taxpayer-funded office staff to complete political work, and used a “kitty” to pay for memberships in breach of party rules.
Byrne also admitted to employing two “Turkish” men as electorate office staff as part of a deal with factional powerbroker – and then-ally – Adem Somyurek, despite one of the men never showing up for work while drawing a taxpayer-funded salary.
Somyurek quit the Labor Party last year after a 60 Minutes investigation aired allegations he orchestrated a mass branch stacking operation. Recordings of him allegedly handing over cash were filmed in Byrne’s electoral office.
On Monday, Victorian Labor MP Luke Donnellan stepped down from cabinet after Byrne told the Ibac hearings that he and Donnellan were both involved in branch stacking, along with Somyurek.
Donnellan accepted he had breached party rules, but denied any other wrongdoing, saying “but let me be very clear: I never misused party funds or resources in any way. And this has absolutely nothing to do with my staff.”
When asked if Byrne should stand down from the party or be asked to resign, Albanese said he would let the Ibac hearings run their course.
“It’s not appropriate to pre-empt their findings and those process, that’s a very clear thing when you have a legal matter taking place.”
He said the federal executive had taken action in the wake of the Nine investigation into branch stacking by ordering an immediate federal takeover, which included taking control of preselections.
“What we did … was intervened, strongly, immediately, decisively, intervened into the Victorian branch,” Albanese said. “We have intervened to make sure that no one can gain any advantage from any improper practices.”
In June 2020 in the wake of the revelations, Labor’s national executive appointed Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin as administrators of the Victorian branch, suspending state committees and member voting rights until 2023.
Unions are challenging the federal takeover in the supreme court.
On Monday, the Victorian Labor senator Kimberley Kitching said there was a “strong rumour” within the party that Byrne would resign.
The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, said Byrne had acted as a whistleblower and had been thanked by counsel assisting Ibac Robert Redlich.
“It is Mr Byrne’s work that has led to this being uncovered,” Dreyfus – who ran an inquiry aimed at eliminating branch stacking in the Victorian division in 1998 – told ABC radio.
But like Albanese, Dreyfus said the Ibac inquiry should be completed before any consequences for Byrne’s actions were countenanced. “It’s very important that it be allowed to complete a full examination of all of the circumstances and then further judgments can be made.”
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, said he had always followed the party’s rules, and had spent 18 months attempting to clean up the party, but that process “may well not be over”.
“I behave appropriately and it is my practice to follow party rules, and when necessary to take swift and direct action to rewrite those rules if they are not adequate,” Andrews said.
“Significant steps were taken. We have made changes, but we may need to go further,” he said.
The former Labor leader, Bill Shorten, said the revelations were “humiliating” and claimed the extent of the practice was surprising.
“It’s sad. I find it embarrassing as a proud Labor person, that these antics have been going on such an industrial scale, if the allegations are correct,” Shorten said.
“So, yeah, I think it turns people off politics. It doesn’t reflect the hard work of so many genuine ALP members and MPs. So, I guess it’s shameful, but at least Ibac’s looking at it. That’s the power of having an anti-corruption commission.”
Federal Victorian Liberals sought to pressure Albanese over the revelations.
The health minister, Greg Hunt, said the opposition leader needed to reveal when he knew about the rampant branch stacking, accusing him of taking the “Sergeant Schultz approach of ‘I know nothing’.”
Education Minister Alan Tudge said the revelations exposed a “systematic abuse of commonwealth funds”.
“What will he do about Anthony Byrne? What will he do about the staff who have been involved … he [Albanese] needs to take strong action,” Tudge told Sky News. “It is rotten to the core in the Labor party here in Victoria.”
Albanese said he was not aware of the branch stacking revealed by Byrne until Monday’s hearings.
“I’m not a member of the Victorian branch. Nor do I have a detailed knowledge of the whole electorate and you’d be surprised if I did,” Albanese said.
The hearings continue in Melbourne on Tuesday.