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The corruption inquiry exposing Labor's culture

Karen Middleton on what the inquiry is actually about, and what the consequences might be for the Labor party both in Victoria and federally.

Over the past week, Victoria’s anti-corruption commission has heard damning evidence about the political culture at the heart of the state’s Labor party. 

The allegations aired so far include claims of branch stacking and misuse of taxpayer funds, and the investigation has already forced the resignation of a number of state government ministers.

Today, chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton on what the inquiry is actually about, and what the consequences might be for the Labor party both in Victoria and federally.


Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Karen Middleton.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

OSMAN: 

From Schwartz Media, I’m Osman Faruqi. This is 7am.

Over the past week, Victoria’s anti-corruption commission has heard damning evidence about the political culture at the heart of the state’s Labor party. 

The allegations aired so far include claims of branch stacking and misuse of taxpayer funds. And the investigation has already forced the resignation of a number of state government ministers.

Today, chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton on what the inquiry is actually about, and what the consequences might be for the Labor party both in Victoria and federally.

It’s Thursday, October 21. 

[Theme Music Ends]

KAREN:
Hi, Ruby. 

OSMAN:
Hey, Karen, it's actually Os, how are you doing? 

KAREN:
Oh, hi, Os, good. How are you? 

OSMAN:
I can’t remember if I said this in my original email, but I'm filling in for Ruby this week. All right, so you'll be getting to answer my questions, which is fun and exciting.

KAREN:
Great.

OSMAN:
Let's do it. 

Karen Last week, Victoria's Anti-Corruption Commission IBAC kicked off public hearings into the conduct of the state's Labour Party. Can you tell me about the inquiry and what exactly it's investigating?

The inquiry is related to what's called Operation Watts... 


Archival tape -- News reports:
“Good evening, a full blown crisis is gripping the Andrews government tonight”

“The biggest story of the week was undoubtedly Victoria’s anti corruption commission probing allegations” 

“explosive evidence of systemic corruption and misuse of taxpayers money.” 

KAREN:
which is an examination of factional activities within the Victorian Labour Party and particularly branch stacking activities that we've heard through the hearings that have started in Victoria has been going on for years and even decades in that state.

OSMAN:
So tell me about how this inquiry started. Why did IBAC start looking into this?

KAREN:
It goes back to a programme broadcast on the nine network's 60 Minutes in June of last year. 

Archival tape -- 60 Minutes:
“Good evening and welcome to a special edition of 60 Minutes. I'm Nick McKenzie.” 

KAREN:
that zeroed in on these allegations of branch stacking. 

Archival tape -- 60 Minutes:
“Tonight, an explosive year-long investigation by 60 Minutes and the Age newspaper will reinforce the distrust and contempt many Australians have for our politicians” 

KAREN:
And that showed hidden camera vision involving Adam Somyurek who was then a state government minister in Victoria and a factional powerbroker. 

Archival tape -- 60 Minutes:
“Now normally, we'd never know what goes on in the backrooms of Australian politics, but we've obtained secret audio and video recordings that catch out the real Adam Somyurek and a warning Somyurek’s behaviour is not only bullying and misogynistic, his language is frequently offensive.”

KAREN:
Who was talking about branch stacking activities and making derogatory comments about one of his colleagues

Archival tape -- 60 Minutes:
“We're going to take over. I’m ging to Fucking knock her fucking head off the fucking psycho bitch.” 

KAREN:
This brought this whole issue to light into the public domain, and as a result, these allegations were further investigated. And we now see these public hearings after a series of private enquiries from IBAC that are really showing us the nasty underbelly of a political party.  

OSMAN:
OK, so you've mentioned branch stacking a couple of times, and it does seem pretty fundamental to the way politics works. What exactly is it and how did it become the focus of an anti-corruption investigation? 

KAREN:
Well, the way you achieve anything in politics is by winning votes, whether that's at the national level, at the state level or right down at the branch level, you need to have the numbers in whatever group of people is voting and you need to win the votes. And generally, the traditional way to do that is to persuade the people who get to vote of your point of view or that you are the best candidate if you're running for office and get them to vote for you. 

But in political parties and not just the Labour Party, it also occurs in the Liberal Party, some people seek to take a shortcut to that process, and rather than just persuading the people who are already members of a branch, they stack the branch with people they know will vote for them. 

Often their memberships are paid for by someone else, so they are really, in many cases, just ghost members of a branch there to make up the numbers. And if they have to physically turn up for a vote, they're expected to vote the way the person who put them there says they should. But sometimes they just supply empty ballot papers and someone else fills them in for them. So it's a pretty cynical way to achieve power in a political party. 

OSMAN:
OK, so the IBAC has started investigating those allegations that public resources were being used to engage in the kind of branch stacking that you just outlined. What has the inquiry heard so far?

KAREN:
Well, it's heard some quite colourful allegations about the extent of branch stacking in the Victorian Labour Party going back, well, two decades, really. 

Archival tape -- IBAC:
“I just want to ask you about whether you've had any involvement in branch stacking, Mr Byrne.
Anthony: I certainly have.” 

KAREN:
The key witness so far has been Anthony Byrne, and he was pretty central to this whole thing coming to light. 

Archival tape -- IBAC:
“And was there quite a systematic process by which that took place?”

Archival tape -- Anthony Byrne:
“There was a very well entrenched system.” 

KAREN
He is a federal Labour MP. He's been a federal MP since 1999. He's also been chair at one point and then deputy chair of the very powerful Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is one of the most powerful parliamentary committees at the federal level. 

He's now a very senior, long, long time backbencher. He's a member of the right faction in Victoria. And he used to be a factional ally of Adam Somyurek, but they've had a falling out in recent years over some of some of Somyurek’s alleged behaviour. 

Archival tape -- Anthony Byrne:
“I saw things and heard things that I just didn't think that I'd ever seen in a modern Labour Party. I heard about them seeing them in the 90s and never thought that I'd see them again.” 

Archival tape -- IBAC:
“What are you referring to, Mr Byrne?”

Archival tape -- Anthony Byrne:
“I’m referring to branch stacking.” 

KAREN:
Anthony Byrne told the commission that Somyurek used to get very angry at staff and was asking unreasonable things, and that gradually Anthony Byrne decided to part ways with him. 

Archival tape -- Anthony Byrne:
“I'm referring to coercion of staff being made to do things that they didn't want to do. I was referring to a party that basically was being taken over by one person whose sole objective was power and power line.” 

Archival tape -- IBAC:
“Who's the person you're referring to?” 

Archival tape -- Anthony Byrne:
“Adam Somyurek.” 

KAREN:
Now, the camera that captured some of the alleged activities of Adam Somyurek, that was that was shown on 60 Minutes via this hidden camera last year, was actually in Anthony Byrne's office. He's been quite key and central to this whole investigation, and now he's been in the witness box, describing not only the activities of Adam Somyurek but admitting that he himself had engaged in some of these activities.

Archival tape -- IBAC:
“Do you accept this? It is clear that those in the head office turned a blind eye to flagrant branch stacking over, say, the last five years.” 

Archival tape -- Anthony Byrne:
“I don't know if I'd say blind eye counsel, I would say so powerless to stop it.” 

KAREN:
So this began with its focus on the Victorian state Labour Party, but it broadened out to the federal domain because of the role of Anthony Byrne and the admissions that he has made. So that makes it a huge headache not only for Daniel Andrews the Premier, but also for Anthony Albanese, the federal Labour leader. 

OSMAN:
We'll be back after this. 

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OSMAN:
Karen, what kind of impact have these IBAC hearings had on the federal Labour Party and on its leader, Anthony Albanese?

KAREN:
Well, they're putting a lot of pressure on the federal Labour Party and particularly on the leader Anthony Albanese. Anthony Byrne came forward late last week and resigned his position on the parliamentary Joint Intelligence Committee and also on the privileges committee. He's not only quit as deputy chair of the intelligence committee, he's quit the committee altogether and the other one. And really, people were expecting he was going to do something like that because it's very difficult to sit on a powerful intelligence committee or on the committee that polices politicians when you've made admissions about activities that will have legal questions about them. Because although branch stacking isn’t unlawful, it is against the rules of the Labour Party. 

But then there's a bigger question about potential offences involving the employment of staff who were knowingly never going to turn up because that is using the taxpayers money to employ someone who's not doing the job that they're being hired for. So that raises serious other questions, it certainly presented a potential conflict on the intelligence committee in particular. And Anthony Albanese, having resisted taking any direct action against Anthony Byrne, has now referred that employment issue to the department of finance for investigation. 

But you know, all of this creates mess and murkiness around what really went on and goes on in the Labour Party in Victoria. 

OSMAN:
Ok, so this scandal is already causing political problems for federal Labor, but what about where this all started, in Victoria. What kind of pressure is putting on the Victorian Labor Party?

Archival tape -- IBAC:
“Will the Premier insist that any of his ministers who are under investigation by the anti corruption commission stand aside?” 

“The Premier?”

Archival tape -- Dan Andrews:
“Not as a matter of necessity no.” 

KAREN:
Well, I think Premier Daniel Andrews is under pressure anyway because of COVID 19 and such long lockdowns. And these sorts of allegations just add extra layers of pressure on him.

Archival tape -- Dan Andrews:
“And again, who IBAC investigates and the circumstances in which they investigate them, who participates in enquiries, who assists IBAC with their enquiries that is A a matter for IBAC and secondly it might not be a matter that anyone in the government would even know about.” 

KAREN:
There's also a separate inquiry that we know about into his government's relationship with the United Firefighters Union in Victoria and whether there was anything inappropriate about that. And we understand from reports in recent days that that is also looking specifically at him. 

Archival tape -- Dan Andrews:
“Thirdly, it is not a matter that would necessity them standing aside, so the simple answer to your question is no.” 

KAREN:
So he's got, pardon the pun fires burning on a number of fronts here in terms of his party's politicking. So none of this will be welcomed by him when he's already under pressure in the context of the pandemic.  

OSMAN:
Karen, this all feels like a lot. There's now two separate IBAC investigations examining the actions of the Victorian Labour Party. What kind of political consequences could that have for both federal and state labour?

KAREN:
Well, in the short term, what it has meant in the wake of the allegations against Adam Somyurek last year was that the federal leader, Anthony Albanese and the state leader of the Premier Daniel Andrews, got together and moved swiftly not only to expel Adam Somyurek from the Labour Party and to sack him as a minister of the Victorian government, but also to intervene in the Victorian branch of the Labour Party. 

So that gives Anthony Albanese and his national executive a lot of power in the Victorian branch, which creates its own factional upheavals. 

And I think it's important to understand that underlying all of these proceedings is this factional tension not only between factions in Victoria, but also between individuals and also at the federal level. There's tension between Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten, his predecessor and the people who are loyal to both of them. You know, there is concern in the Albanese camp that Bill Shorten and his colleagues are still trying to regain influence or maintain influence to possibly see him make a comeback. And there's concern in the Shorten camp about the way Albanese and Daniel Andrews have railroaded the Victorian branch used the 60 Minutes story, they say, as an excuse to come in and intervene. So there's a lot bubbling along involving individual and personal power and factional rivalries underneath all of these commission enquiries. 

And of course, the Victorian Commission is not the only one operating at the moment, there's an anti-corruption commission in New South Wales that's looking into the activities of the former Premier Gladys Berejiklian and whether she breached public trust with her five year secret relationship with a colleague and whether there was anything inappropriate about some grant money that went to his electorate during that time. 

So what we have is anti-corruption commissions in Sydney and Melbourne, looking at the Liberal Party in Sydney and the Labour Party in Melbourne, while everybody in Canberra argues about whether there should be an integrity commission. You can imagine that those discussions get very awkward under those circumstances, and nobody really has the high moral ground. 

OSMAN:
Karen, thank you so much for explaining all of this to me. 

KAREN:
Thanks very much. 

[Advertisement]

OSMAN:
Also in the news today… 

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced on Wednesday that 70% of Australians over the age of 16 have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. 

 

That milestone means the country will now move into “phase B” of the national reopening plan, which will focus on minimising the health impacts of  Covid-19 using only low-level restrictions. 

 

And the NSW corruption watchdog has heard evidence former Premier Gladys Berejiklian pushed forward a funding proposal after her then-secret partner, MP Daryl Maguire, "fired up" about it.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption is investigating millions of dollars of grants handed to McGuire’s electorate and whether Berejiklian breached public trust.

 

I’m Osman Faruqi, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

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