In a statement, the Finance Department, led by secretary Rosemary Huxtable, confirmed it had launched investigations into Assistant Treasurer Mr Sukkar and his factional colleague, former defence minister Kevin Andrews. “[The] reviews are currently being conducted under the ‘Protocol – Handling of Potential Misuse of Non-Travel related Work Expenses’,” the statement said.
Leaked messages released earlier this week revealed how Mr Sukkar and his office directed and endorsed the employment of party political staff funded by the taxpayer in his own office and Mr Andrews’ office, in possible breach of federal laws.
The new emails show Mr Sukkar was told in 2018 by his brother Paul Sukkar – a former electorate officer for Mr Andrews – as well as Mr Bastiaan that electorate officers were managing a campaign to recruit party members. Mr Sukkar has sought to blame rogue former staffers in his office for the impropriety, but these emails suggest he was aware of the plans.
On April 4, 2018, Mr Bastiaan and Paul Sukkar sent emails to Mr Sukkar that showed they were directing an electorate officer called Thilaga “Jessy” Jayakumaran to manage the recruitment of new party members. Mr Sukkar’s office had helped install Ms Jayakumaran in the office of Kevin Andrews.
If Ms Jayakumaran was conducting this activity during work hours as an electorate officer, it would be a breach of federal laws designed to stop the rorting of electorate office budgets.
The April 4 email chain, which was copied to Mr Sukkar, directed Ms Jayakumaran to manage the membership applications of a number of people signed up the previous night. Mr Sukkar’s brother, Paul, informed Ms Jayakumaran that he had submitted membership forms for 13 new recruits. Mr Bastiaan replied saying “good stuff … Last night had a good haul in [the seat of] Menzies. 4 newbies plus 2 in [the seat of] Deakin, 2 in Chisholm”.
Michael Sukkar responded to both men: “Great stuff, well done.”
Mr Bastiaan also made reference to the recruiting activity in churches of former Christian pastor Nigel Lau, who worked as an electorate officer for both Mr Andrews and Mr Sukkar. “Nigel Lau doing an amazing job through his network,” Mr Bastiaan wrote.
Mr Sukkar maintained in a statement on Friday that “every member of my team” had been expected to “obey all applicable parliamentary policies and guidelines” and that Mr Lau was “an excellent employee who fulfilled his role for me and my constituents exceptionally well”.
“Staff members have never been prevented from being involved in party activities in their personal capacity, but they are required to fulfil their employment obligations in accordance with the rules,” Mr Sukkar’s statement said.
Another leaked email shows Mr Sukkar attending a membership recruiting session with Mormon elder and recruiter Ivan Stratov on June 3, 2017. Mr Stratov is suspected of stacking Mormons into Liberal branches as recently as February.
Texts sent by Michael Sukkar also reveal his involvement in a plot launched behind Mr Bastiaan’s back to stop Brighton MP James Newbury, a long-time friend of Mr Bastiaan and a supposed factional ally of both men, from entering State Parliament. Mr Newbury, selected as the candidate for the seat in 2016 in anticipation of the November 2018 poll, had fallen out with Mr Sukkar on a number of fronts including that he was seen to be pro-euthanasia, while Mr Sukkar was strongly anti-euthanasia.
“Newbury did come up [in a conversation]. He’ll have to go I think,” Mr Sukkar wrote in May 2018, six months before the election. The plot was not carried through and Mr Newbury won the safe seat.
Freshly obtained audio from 2018 show that, with the Bastiaan factional machine, even those who consider themselves allies of the 30-year-old were not spared, including erstwhile allies and Victorian state Liberal MPs Mr Smith and Mr Newbury, and former president Michael Kroger.
“Those two buffoons, and I would say it to their faces if they were with me right now, are running a proxy war that is on the fringes of our group,” Mr Bastiaan said. “Tim (Smith) is not a good guy, I take that back, he’s not a good guy. No, he is not a good guy, the way he has behaved.”
The tapes reveal Mr Bastiaan considered pushing powerbroker Michael Kroger out of his job as Liberal Party president behind Mr Sukkar’s back, a move he later admitted on tape was a betrayal of Mr Sukkar, who intervened to stop the plan. Mr Bastiaan’s threat was considered serious in early 2018, but by April he had changed his mind and used his numbers to re-elect Mr Kroger as president.
“I said to Michael [Sukkar] when I was sound-boarding the idea … about getting rid of Michael [Kroger], I felt in this instance as Michael Sukkar must have felt when he felt that we didn’t tell him. I didn’t tell him and I felt really bad,” Mr Bastiaan said.
Mr Smith, Mr Kroger and Mr Newbury declined to comment.
The factional machinations and branch stacking were carried out as part of a push to give the Sukkar-Bastiaan faction control over appointments to key party positions and the preselection of candidates in safe seats.
Labor is calling for Mr Sukkkar to be sacked and has written to the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens, to investigate whether he breached ministerial standards.
“What [media reporting] has shown occurred is a prima facie breach of the ministerial codes,” Shadow Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones said.
The Parliamentary Business Resources Act and the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act require MPs to hire, fire and manage their own staff and ensure they do not do factional work while employed as electorate officers. Electorate officers are meant to conduct work relating to an MP’s constituents such as answering letters and organising local events.
Evidence of alleged impropriety exposed this week by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes has prompted the Liberal Party to conduct a five-year forensic audit its own membership and has resulted in Mr Bastiaan and other key Liberals quitting the party.
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Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter for The Age. He’s won nine Walkley awards and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.
Joel is a producer for 60 Minutes.