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Labor turmoil: Somyurek scandal exposes the rot in our politics

At the beginning and end of each parliamentary sitting week, Somyurek would drive Byrne out to the airport, then pick him up when he returned to Melbourne from Canberra. They shared an interest in politics and foreign policy. Before long, Somyurek was working casual shifts for Byrne’s boss, learning the game.

Byrne had gotten a shot at Holt because Collins, a socially conservative MP backed by the right-wing Shoppies union, had turned it down, deeming it unwinnable. That changed once Somyurek went to work on a block of about 200 Turkish voters who’d pledged support for Hennessy. He “flipped” the votes, turned the preselection on its head and delivered Byrne the seat he still holds today.

No one questioned his methods. What mattered was the numbers.

Three years later, Byrne helped convince his supporters to return the favour and use their numbers to secure Somyurek’s preselection for an upper house seat in Victoria. Somyurek and Byrne would remain firm friends and political allies until the seismic events of this week, when an investigation by The Age and 60 Minutes exposed the rot within Labor.

Like NSW Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, Somyurek is now a figure of national notoriety, the embodiment of a political system in which power is the ends rather than a means to good government.

But Somyurek is a symptom, not the disease.

“This is just the latest chapter in what is an ongoing book of Labor,” says Garth Head, an experienced Labor operative who was a numbers man for Bob Hawke and more recently a factional ally of Somyurek’s. “Although we see it as major now, it is but a continuation of the basic way Australian political parties operate. Many would see it as corrupt.”

Another party figure is dismayed at how politics is done.

“There is an ingrained and inter-generational brutality about the way the Victorian Labor Party operates that crushes good people and corrodes the soul,’’ the Labor figure tells The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. “This toxicity goes right through the party. The party must confront this in its entirety if we can even hope to see meaningful change.’’

Meanwhile, the troubled NSW branch of the party was also dealing with the fallout of its own branch-stacking controversy this week.

NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay with Granville MP Julia Finn, who has quit cabinet after being named in a branch-stacking investigation. She resigned on Friday but maintained her innocence.

NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay with Granville MP Julia Finn, who has quit cabinet after being named in a branch-stacking investigation. She resigned on Friday but maintained her innocence. Credit:AAP

Granville MP Julia Finn, a core member of the so-called Ferguson group of soft-left MPs who offer critical factional support to NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay, was named in an internal Sussex Street report.

The report found membership books in western Sydney were systematically falsified. The report found that Finn breached party rules but there were no adverse findings against her.

Initially, it looked like the frontbencher would be spared from further political damage. But the Berejiklian government seized on the report, and Labor’s ongoing woes, in NSW Parliament on Wednesday.

The Coalition’s preferred attack dog, Corrections Minister Anthony Roberts, moved a motion that censured McKay for “remaining silent” on the report and condoning branch stacking.

A censure motion is usually a tool that oppositions wield to reprimand a minister but the government used it to give more oxygen to the branch-stacking claims on the back of Victorian revelations. McKay stood by Finn, while also admitting she hadn’t read the report in full.

On Thursday, McKay insisted any findings against Labor members are “an issue for head office to deal with”.

“They are not my concern. There is an independent process that has to go through,” she said.

Finn maintained her innocence. But by Friday afternoon, Finn had stood aside from her role as Labor’s spokeswoman for carers and consumer protection. In a statement she said she wants to clear her name, but Labor sources said she would not return to the frontbench.

Back in Victoria, within hours of the 60 Minutes episode which exposed Somyurek’s network of branch stackers and his contempt for caucus colleagues, Victoria’s minister for small business and local government was dumped from cabinet and quit the party. He is now the subject of an IBAC investigation.

The extent of his alleged malfeasance – the potential corruption of a quarter of the party’s Victorian membership – prompted the ALP’s National Executive to take over administration of the state branch. Former premier Steve Bracks and retired federal MP Jenny Macklin have been called in to clean up the mess.

Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks speaks to media in Melbourne.

Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks speaks to media in Melbourne.Credit:James Ross

Yet the stench from the Somyurek scandal goes beyond the Labor Party.

Within the political system there are meant to be institutional checks to prevent misuse of power by elected officials. These include opposition parties, the media and Somyurek’s own Labor colleagues who, according to Premier Daniel Andrews, were appalled by Somyurek’s “deplorable’’ conduct.

Instead, Somyurek was protected by journalists and Liberal Party MPs who valued the information he provided. Fear of retribution silenced his parliamentary colleagues, who needed only to read the pages of Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper to see what happened to anyone who called Somyurek out.

Somyurek’s career could have ended five years ago when, just months into his first stint as a minister, he was accused of bullying and intimidation by two employees, his then chief of staff Dimity Paul and a young ministerial adviser, Xavier Smith.

The findings of an investigation overseen by retired judge Michael Strong prompted Andrews to strip Somyurek of ministerial duties and demote him to the backbench. Paul was meanwhile targeted relentlessly by Somyurek through the Herald Sun.

While the investigation was ongoing, the Herald Sun led its paper with a story designed to undermine the credibility of the complaints and portray them as a “political hit” by a rival factional boss who’d had a bitter falling-out with Somyurek. A graphic accompanying the story depicted Paul and the premier as marionettes controlled by union boss Michael Donovan, the state secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, and Somyurek as the man trying to cut the strings.

The day after Strong delivered his findings, the Herald Sun published the confidential statements of witnesses who, at Somyurek’s invitation, vouched for his character and challenged Paul’s account.

Some of the names attached to those statements would be familiar to anyone who has followed the latest scandal. One of them was from Nick McLennan, a taxpayer-funded staffer who played a prominent role in the 60 Minutes story as Somyurek’s branch-stacking bagman.

A more recent episode reveals the nexus between Somyurek and senior figures within the Victorian Liberal Party. In February 2018, an altercation took place inside a parliamentary dining hall involving the then minister for tourism, John Eren, and Somyurek, who was angry at Eren for refusing to support a factional deal that would strengthen his power across the party. According to Eren, Somyurek initiated the argument and threatened him with a butter knife.

Minister for Sport, Tourism, Major Events and Veterans John Eren after his confrontation with Adem Somyurek.

Minister for Sport, Tourism, Major Events and Veterans John Eren after his confrontation with Adem Somyurek.Credit:Joe Armao

The next morning in parliamentary question time, the first question to Andrews by then opposition leader Matthew Guy was whether Eren had been drinking heavily before the incident. This was the first public airing of Somyurek’s line of defence.

“There are some journalists who are absolutely complicit in this behaviour,’’ a Labor insider said. “No state rounds journalist would pick it up because he leaked to all of them. The opposition never held him to account because he leaked to the opposition. He created a protection racket around himself.

“We can point our fingers completely at the ALP but this doesn’t happen on its own. People have tried to stop this guy but everyone who does ends up at the end of a character assassination.”

Until the moment of his spectacular prime-time demise, Somyurek believed himself too big to fall. In the days leading up to the 60 Minutes program he boasted to a colleague that whatever was coming, he could rely on the Herald Sun to run interference for him. He believed he could control the press, just as he wielded the numbers.

Adem Somyurek and Nick McLennan captured in the 60 Minutes expose.

Adem Somyurek and Nick McLennan captured in the 60 Minutes expose.Credit:Nine

Somyurek also understood that, in the cold calculations of the Labor machine, numbers take priority over integrity. Anyone who doubts this need only reflect on the decision by Andrews, after his re-election in December 2018, to return “my very good friend” Somyurek to his cabinet.

Andrews and Somyurek both cut their teeth in the fractious political landscape of Melbourne’s south-east, where branch stacking was rife. They rose through the Labor ranks as contemporaries and factional rivals. They were Labor mates but never friends.

Garth Head first met Somyurek on Byrne’s 1999 preselection campaign for Holt. He saw in Somyurek an intelligent, driven personality motivated in no small part by his experience of racism growing up in ’70s and ’80s Melbourne.

Blocks or stacks of voters from the ethnic communities had long been used within the ALP as a way to manipulate branch numbers. It rankled Somyurek that these tactics were mostly employed to support candidates who bore little resemblance to their ethnic constituents.

“You had a disproportionate number of white Anglo males holding positions of power with no genuine care or understanding of what multiculturalism really meant in practice,’’ Head says. “It was clear to Adem that they were just using ethnic groups and recruits for power, would pay off some of their leaders with appointments and occasional seats to retain their support but never give them any real share of power.

“Adem’s motivation has been that the ethnicity of Victorian politics, particularly Labor supporters, should be reflected in parliamentary representation and party power structures. He is sincere in that belief.”

This narrative is contested by rival factional figures, but branch stacking in the ALP cannot be separated from questions of race. As one observer noted, branch stacking is an allegation almost entirely reserved for political figures with non-Anglo backgrounds. The rise of Somyurek simply showed he was better at it than most.

By the time Andrews brought Somyurek back to the front bench, the latter’s power within the Labor Party was immense. Piece by piece he had created a dominant, omnibus faction, dubbed the New Deal, which melded his own considerable numbers with the party’s Industrial Left and members of the Right faction still loyal to Bill Shorten. It put Somyurek at the centre of a new order and marginalised the influence of two of the ALP’s most enduring factional chiefs, Stephen Conroy and Kim Carr.

Somyurek had also spent his years in backbench exile chipping away at Andrews’ leadership, primarily through the Herald Sun.

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Labor sources suspect that reporting of the “Red Shirt” scandal, Labor’s misuse of taxpayer-funded staff to do campaign work in the leadup to the 2014 election, was fed by Somyurek and his supporters. His animus towards Andrews made him a valuable source for any journalist seeking to do the government harm. His factional clout meant he could not be deselected.

Andrews assessed that to preserve his government, Somyurek must be appeased. What message did that send to Labor MPs about standing up to Adem Somyurek? Just as importantly, what message did it send to Somyurek?

The events of this week show that, while Somyurek has lost his frontbench position, salary and ALP membership, his basic political instincts remain unchanged. Having decided that Byrne, a man Somyurek once described as “one of the true friends I have made from politics’’, was complicit in the secret bugging operation which exposed him, Somyurek released a cache of text messages designed to ensure Byrne’s political career meets the same sticky end as his own.

Somyurek believes he is the victim of this sordid affair and that the true villains of the piece are those who arranged to secretly record his conversations and the journalists who revealed what he said and did.

The ALP is no less deluded if it thinks getting rid of Somyurek will fix its problems.

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