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How did Somyurek get so much power? Because the ALP let him

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Andrews expressed his sympathies to legitimate ALP members, whose voices were distorted and disrespected while the unbridled branch-stacking was going on and are now stilled by intervention. But the suggestion that Andrews did not have some idea of how Somyurek was adding to his internal power base before The Age and 60 Minutes reports stretches credulity.

The Premier’s adult life has been devoted to the Labor Party – he knows how it works. Before entering Parliament, he had worked for federal MP Alan Griffin and been an organiser and assistant secretary of the state ALP.

A member of the Socialist Left, he secured a ministry when his parliamentary colleague and factional sponsor Gavin Jennings told then premier Steve Bracks that Andrews would be one of two MPs from the left who would be elevated to the frontbench after the 2006 election.

That exchange was predicated in part on talent but mostly on factional numbers.

The Premier’s solid comprehension of Somyurek’s enhanced internal influence was demonstrated after the last election, when he welcomed Somyurek back to his cabinet. It also indicated how much Andrews, as Premier, has for at least the last four years avoided asserting himself on internal Labor Party matters. After all, the two men had a history.

Early in the life of the government, in 2015, Somyurek was forced to resign as a minister after bullying allegations from his former chief of staff. Somyurek was unhappy and felt he had been treated poorly. That was the point when his political modus operandi became clear and the state ALP started heading towards its current condition. Freed of his frontbench responsibilities, Somyurek had more time to boost his factional power base.

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As he expanded his influence within the party’s right faction, he offered a place of comfort for others inside the ALP who were unhappy with the Premier and existing factional arrangements. His most spectacular recruit was Jane Garrett, a star of the Socialist Left who had resigned as emergency services minister after a falling-out with the Premier. Garrett had been conducting protracted pay negotiations between the CFA and the firefighters union, which had waged an aggressive personal campaign against her.

Andrews stepped in, claiming the matter had gone on too long, and did a deal favourable to the union.

Feeling abandoned by her leader and her faction, and desperate to find a new seat – her gentrifying electorate of Brunswick was going Green quickly – she drifted into Somyurek’s orbit.

Garrett’s exit from the Socialist Left was a bonanza for Somyurek, who eventually found a seat for her in the upper house. She brought the left-wing construction and public transport unions with her. This further boosted Somyurek. As he expanded his internal territory, his grouping also became more attractive to right-wing unions that had been operating independently of the factional system.

This was the power base Somyurek commanded at the time of the 2018 election and the reason that Andrews welcomed him back to the cabinet, describing him as a “friend”. He could be kept from the top table no longer, certainly not when the Premier was unwilling to use his position to limit Somyurek’s internal power or even curb his excesses. Instead, he implicitly, if inadvertently, encouraged him.

Somyurek’s restoration to the frontbench also came only months after an incident in which minister John Eren claimed to have been grabbed by Somyurek and then threatened with a knife in the parliamentary dining room. Somyurek denied this point blank, insisting there had been no knife and no physical altercation. Other Labor MPs came forward eagerly to support Somyurek’s version, including Marlene Kairouz, who was forced to resign for other reasons after The Age‘s reports last week. Some of the Somyurek supporters argued that it was a “hit” by Eren, who was not one of Somyurek’s people.

Some will wonder how it could be that Somyurek, as a minister of the crown, could have established such an extensive and vigorous branch-stacking operation. It’s pretty simple.

The reason he was able to attain such influence was that many people in leadership positions, ministers, backbenchers, and office-bearers in the ALP did not want to see anything. And if they did notice something, they were incurious and hoped nothing would happen to them.

For Somyurek, enough was never enough. He kept seeking more and more power, and anyone who stood in his way was characterised as an enemy.

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Somewhere along the line, for Somyurek the purpose of politics became the pursuit of internal power seemingly for its own sake. By his own admission, he was seeking the power to decide who occupied the highest political office in the state. And he was right: left unchecked, he would have got himself to the point where he would be – as he put it on one of the tapes – “running the joint”.

The fightback in the courts and the media by Somyurek and his union lieutenants is to be expected. Perhaps more reputations or even careers will be destroyed as a result. Either way, it’s over. And this time, what’s been seen can’t be unseen.

Shaun Carney is a regular columnist and a vice-chancellor’s professorial fellow at Monash University.

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