Senior MPs mortally wounding the careers of their “political sons”. “Megalomaniac” leaders compared to Hitler. But Victoria’s anti-corruption commission hearings into Labor party branch stacking heard more than allegations of political bastardry this week: in some cases, the quest for factional power may have led to something significantly worse.
After Anthony Byrne, the federal MP for Holt, gave evidence that two men who were employed by his electorate office but never showed up to work were still paid taxpayer-funded salaries, the counsel assisting, Chris Carr SC, asked what could be done to stop it happening again. Byrne said it should be banned by the party.
“Well, Mr Byrne, I don’t mean to be glib,” Carr responded, “but that conduct is very much banned by the criminal law and yet it seems to be something that takes place.”
The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (Ibac) began public hearings this week as part of Operation Watts, an investigation that started in May last year after the commission was provided with confidential information that indicated Victorian MPs may have misused public funds.
A month after the investigation started, the Age and 60 Minutes revealed video and audio recordings that they alleged showed evidence of a branch-stacking operation by Adem Somyurek, a Victorian upper house MP who has represented Melbourne’s south-east since 2002 and was a minister in the Andrews government.
In the wake of the reports, Somyurek was sacked from the ministry and quit the party, and two other ministers from his moderate faction, Marlene Kairouz and Robin Scott, stood down. All three denied any wrongdoing.
Branch stacking and paying for memberships is not illegal, but the commission is investigating whether public resources were misused as part of these factional activities.
‘Rerouting’ of postage stamps
Within hours of Byrne starting his evidence on Monday, the saga claimed a fourth minister, Luke Donnellan, whom Byrne described in a text to Somyurek that was revealed during the hearings as his “political son”.
Byrne gave evidence that he, Donnellan and Somyurek had paid for other people’s memberships in breach of party rules. Donnellan admitted a breach of the rules, but said he never misused public funds.
The story of Byrne and the electorate office employees who never showed up for work was not the only time Carr unveiled evidence this week of conduct he suspected went further than backroom politicking.
In an event Carr described as “a quite deliberate course of conduct to misappropriate the electoral office budget”, a former staffer for Byrne and other MPs, Adam Sullivan, gave evidence that he was instructed to buy postage stamps with public money that were later used for political purposes.
In 2018, while employed as an electorate officer for Somyurek, Sullivan bought $11,000-15,000 worth of stamps with public funds. Sullivan said he was asked by another staffer, Nick McLennan, to buy the stamps so they could be used by the moderate faction.
Sullivan said he then “rerouted” a “fair number” of the stamps out of the electoral office, and they were later used in the state election campaign of Tim Richardson, another MP within the faction. No evidence was provided to the commission that suggested Richardson knew of the scheme.
Sullivan said McLennan warned him to complete this task inconspicuously, so as not to raise the suspicions of parliamentary services, the body that investigates the spending of public money within electorate offices.
Sullivan also provided evidence on Wednesday, the final day of the first week of hearings, that multiple electorate office staff hired by Somyurek rarely showed up for work as rostered, and that Somyurek used part of his electorate budget to pay his father to clean the office.
“Did it look like it was an office that was regularly cleaned?” Carr asked.
“No, it did not,” Sullivan replied, alleging it was “decrepit” and full of cobwebs. He told the commission he had hired an exterminator to rid the kitchen of cockroaches.
‘I’ve done the Albanians’
Somyurek, whom Sullivan described to the commission as a “megalomaniac” and to friends as “Mein Führer”, is yet to appear before the hearing, but he has been represented by a lawyer, Remy van de Wiel QC. The commission decided on Tuesday, after Van de Wiel cross-examined Byrne, that the remainder of cross-examinations would occur once all the other witnesses had appeared.
Van de Wiel suggested to Byrne that it was he, not Somyurek, who pulled the strings, which Byrne denied. Van de Wiel traversed Byrne’s extensive political history, dating back to the 1990s, in an attempt to paint a picture of someone who had been involved in factional power plays well before Somyurek entered politics.
Robert Redlich QC, the Ibac commissioner, made clear that although the events occurred decades ago, they were relevant to the investigation.
“The conduct giving rise to these allegations of corrupt conduct, namely branch stacking, is conduct which, by Mr Byrne’s account and by all of the other material that’s available to the commission, has been endemic within the Labor party for at least the last 20 years, if not longer,” Redlich said on Tuesday.
“So to the extent that the commission has a prevention function ... it’s important to understand the nature of that culture, the level at which it is embedded within the party, and the extent to which that culture explains the allegations of corruption with which we are primarily concerned.
“It is in that way and only in that way that it’s relevant to look at more historically the extent to which that culture has existed.”
And so Van de Wiel continued to ask Byrne about various ethnic groups whom, he alleged, the MP had cultivated expressly to stack branches in Melbourne’s south-east.
“I’ve done the Albanians, Bosnians. I’m dealing now with the Vietnamese,” Van de Wiel said at one point. He had already asked about Turkish groups, then asked about Cambodians and Indians. Byrne acknowledged he had approached various groups to recruit members.
On Monday, Byrne gave evidence about a deal he said was made with brothers Aloke and Manoj Kumar, whom he said Somyurek described as the “financiers” of a large number of Labor party members from the Indian community.
Byrne said Somyurek promised the brothers that an Indian would be nominated for Victoria’s upper house if they moved all their members from a rival faction into the moderates. The brothers allegedly obliged, and Somyurek arranged to have Kaushaliya Vaghela placed on the ticket, Byrne alleged. It was not suggested that Vaghela was aware of the scheme.
Vaghela was elected in 2018, becoming the first Indian-born MP in the state’s history. But Byrne alleged the Kumar brothers then had a meeting with him and Somyurek during which they argued their case to be promised a second MP – perhaps in federal parliament – given the “huge number” of members they had allegedly recruited.
More allegations about how the party has dealt with minority groups are likely. The commission has only briefly mentioned the three organisations whose relationships with the party are being examined as part of the hearings: the Australia Light Foundation, the Cambodian Association of Victoria and the Somali Australian Council of Victoria.
Nor has it touched on grants funding for community-based organisations.
It is yet to be seen whether the allegations about the party culture will increase the pressure on the premier, Daniel Andrews, who this week said he had always “behaved appropriately” when asked what he knew about the allegations against Donellan.
The uneasiness has spread north, too, where the federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, was forced to answer questions about Byrne’s future after his explosive evidence. On Thursday Byrne resigned as the deputy chair of the powerful parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, but he remains an MP.
The hearings have heard evidence that, peripherally at least, involves other federal MPs. Some were guest speakers at fundraising dinners that Byrne alleged were solely designed to generate cash that could be used to buy memberships (in breach of party rules). In other cases, political staffers from the faction who, the commission heard, had been involved in doing party work while being paid taxpayer-funded wages in their previous roles, went on to work in federal offices.
Somyurek is not expected to give evidence until the later part of the five-week public hearings, but he has been regularly tweeting his thoughts on proceedings.
On Tuesday, as Van de Wiel prepared to ask another question of Byrne, Redlich let the lawyer know he could hear Somyurek whispering instructions to him, saying: “I suspect you’d prefer that that was not the case.”
Van de Wiel agreed, saying he “would prefer some level of separation”.
“I’m not suggesting anything prejudicial against him, I quite like him,” he said of Somyurek. “But sometimes I wish he’d slow down.”