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The party within a party: How Labor’s factions work

Today, Labor speechwriter and contributor to The Saturday Paper Dennis Glover on the party within a party.
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An investigation into factional misconduct in Victoria has created debate about how the Labor Party is structured and how it can be reformed.

The stakes are incredibly high for the party: not only is some of the conduct illegal and undemocratic, but it also risks losses in seats where independents are likely to run on integrity.

Today, Labor speechwriter and contributor to The Saturday Paper Dennis Glover on the party within a party. 

Socials: Stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram

Guest: Labor speechwriter and contributor to The Saturday Paper Dennis Glover.

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

##RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*.

An investigation into factional misconduct in Victoria has created debate about how the Labor Party is structured and how it can be reformed.

The stakes are incredibly high for the party; not only is some of the conduct illegal and undemocratic, it also risks losses in seats where independents are likely to run on integrity.

Today, Labor speechwriter and contributor to *The Saturday Paper* Dennis Glover on what he calls the party within a party.

It’s Tuesday, August 2.

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##RUBY:
Dennis, we now have the findings from investigations by IBAC and the Victorian Ombudsman into misconduct in the state Labor Party - especially around powerbroker Adem Somyurek. Could you tell me - as you watched those inquiries unfold - what you thought? 

##DENNIS:
Well, I remember when the hearings were happening, I think it was October last year, I and everyone I know was sort of glued to the screen watching the live feed.  

##Archival tape -- IBAC Counsel Assisting:
“The IBAC obtained information which suggested that there continued to be premeditated and systematic rorting of taxpayer resources…”

##DENNIS:
And I think that the entire Victorian branch of the ALP, or at least the active members, were just watching in horror as they saw unfold before their eyes people admitting in public to what everybody had known all along… 

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

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

##DENNIS:
…which is that enormous branch stacking is going on and that the factions, you know, were really rorting the party. 

##Archival tape -- Marlene Kairouz MP (phone recording): 
“Branch stacking... all of that is… not against the law. That’s not corruption.:”

##Archival tape – Adem Somyurek (phone recording): 
“It’s serious misconduct. And it's serious misconduct.”

##Archival tape -- Marlene Kairouz MP (phone recording): 
“You can change your signature every week.”

##Archival tape -- IBAC Counsel Assisting:
“It's as clear as can be, I suggest to you, Mr. Somyurek, that the two of you well knew about the practice of forgery, and that's what you're referring to…”

##DENNIS:
The people who had been caught on film on the 60 Minutes program and reported in The Age in their exposé, were forced to answer questions in front of the enquiry about what they were up to…

##Archival tape – Adem Somyurek (at IBAC hearing): 
“As we discussed before, I got initiated into this culture…”

##DENNIS:
…and what it exposed was that a number of electorate offices and the staff in them were engaging in crazy things, like for instance, going around to letterboxes and pulling out ballot papers before people had the chance to fill them in, making false declarations about ballots. 

##Archival tape – Adem Somyurek (at IBAC hearing): 
“I went to the Premier, I said ‘Do you know what John’s doing’, he said ‘yes’. Words to the effect of - 'do you want to win an election or not?'”

##DENNIS:
And I think the most poignant of all of them was that young fellow, Adam Sullivan, where he was forced to admit all of the things that he'd done on behalf of Adem Somyurek, you know, the ballot stuffing and falsifying records and so forth. And he looked incredibly remorseful. And my heart went out to him as somebody who had been young myself in the party. And that was the great tragedy of it all, that, you know, all of these people who didn't really understand the gravity of what they were doing suddenly realised that what they were doing was highly unethical and in some ways pointless and stupid, and were forced to admit it in public and humiliate themselves. And so I think that's why Operation Watts became a bit of a spectacle that mesmerised the people watching it. 

##RUBY:
And your perspective, you're saying this not just as an observer but as a Labor speechwriter, someone who has long associations with the Labor Party. 

##DENNIS:
Well, I've been involved in the Labor Party for 40 years now. I've worked for, you know, many leaders at the state and federal level. I still do a lot of writing for the party, but for a long time I've been a sceptic of the factions. And I think that partly comes from the fact that when I was in my twenties, I went to Cambridge and I lived in the UK and I was a member of the British Labor Party. And what I found there was that they didn't have organised factions in the way that we have with membership roles, disciplinary procedures, bank accounts. 

They were much looser organisations which allowed people to coalesce around people and ideas. And so it struck me when I came back just how unusual the factional system was, particularly in Victoria. And I think people just don't realise just how unusual it is: I mean for there to be a party within a party, just isn't tolerated elsewhere.

##RUBY:
Well, can you tell me a bit more about that? How have factions become so dominant in the Labor Party and how do they distort democratic processes? 

##DENNIS:
Factionalism in the Victorian Labor Party goes back a long way. The existing factions sort of have their roots back in the 1960s. And back in those days the whole thing operated on a logical basis of left versus right. But I think what happened over time was these factions hardened into, you know, oligarchical sort of organisations that exercise total factional control.

And I think it's got to the stage now where very few people in the party actually know who the faction leaders are, but know that the faction leaders seem to control just about every decision and there's no democracy. I mean, when you're a member of a political party, you want to have some sort of democratic say. So on principle, it's bad because people who join political parties should have the right to a say over what goes on. 

The problem when you have no democracy is that you end up having no oversight. Nobody knows what's going on and things get done for all the wrong reasons. So instead, for instance of the best people putting themselves forward for preselection, the friends of the faction leaders put themselves forward for preselection. Nobody gets a say. And so we end up with a parliament full of people who, you know, some of whom probably shouldn't be there, or at least we deny ourselves having real good, strong community activists. 

And what's happened since 2020 when Operation Watts began, the party processes were completely put into abeyance, and ever since then the party has been ruled by an interim committee with no involvement from the members whatsoever. 

So we've gone from a situation where the party was being manipulated by branch stacking to win votes, to a situation now where the factions rule the party without any voting taking place at all. It's a perfect situation for the factions. They don't have to have any recourse to the branch members at all. It's become absolutely absurd. 

##RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment. 

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##RUBY:
Dennis, factionalism in the Victorian Labor party, seems by your account, to be a deep-rooted problem. If that's the case, what do you think that the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, should do to solve it? 

##Archival tape – Dan Andrews: 
“As leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party and the Premier of that state, I take full responsibility for all of that conduct. That's what the top job is all about and I apologise for it.”

##DENNIS:
I think that not only does he have to implement the recommendations of Operation Watts in full, which to his credit he's pledged to do… 

##Archival tape – Dan Andrews: 
“The Government has accepted all 21 of the recommendations made. That's all the recommendations that have been made by the integrity agencies…”

##DENNIS:
…what he should be doing is investigating ways in which to start dismantling the factional system. 

##Archival tape – Dan Andrews: 
“Two years ago we began the process of reforming Victorian Labor and today we begin the process of reforming the Victorian Parliament…”

##DENNIS:
But people in the Victorian Labor Party have lived with the factions for so long that they think they're just a natural given. And I think real leadership would involve strong rule changes in order to prevent people from setting up organisations like factions which have their own membership lists, which have bank accounts, which force people to follow discipline in the way they vote in internal party ballots and so forth. All of these things can be outlawed really by using the party's rules. 

##Archival tape – Dan Andrews: 
“…but it also, I think, calls for us not just to have things as a function of the rules of a party, because rules can change from time to time. Rules can sometimes not be enforced. I want to put these things beyond doubt, not just for one party, but for the whole parliament. And that's where us going beyond these recommendations, I think is a really important step…”

 ##DENNIS:
I mean, we're seeing the rise now, you know, not just through the Greens, but the Teals, of really community based organisations of people who value democracy and want to have a say, setting up alternatives to the Labor Party because I think in many ways they see membership of the Labor Party is becoming quite pointless. I mean, what's the point in joining an organisation when some faceless factional operators make all the decisions, choose all the candidates for Parliament, when really strong people come forward and want to run for parliament and never get the chance because they have to get in line behind all of the factional candidates. The Labor Party, if it wants to have a future, has to confront this issue of the damage that the factions are doing to it. 

##RUBY:
And what impact do you think that this is going to have then on the upcoming state election, not just the political damage of Operation Watts and the report that's just been released. But what you're talking about more broadly, the damage done, by the way, that the party's been operating? 

##DENNIS:
Well, the lesson comes from what happened in the federal election. You know it's not beyond comprehension that Labor could lose several inner city seats to the Greens, but also several middle suburban seats to independents, including the teals who are going to contest some state seats. 

And, you know, when you’re continually confronted by scandal, continually confronted by factionalism, it must...all of this must cumulatively affect Labor's standing in the community. 

And I think for me that's the real scandal of Operation Watts. I grew up in Doveton, out past Dandenong, Doveton, you know, it was an old Labor heartland area. You know, both my parents worked in the factories next to the housing commission estate we lived in. My sisters worked in those factories. I worked in them for a time. 

And, you know, they've gone into decline over the years. Doveton went through a really long, long, probably two decade long period of mass unemployment, sometimes up to 25%. There was huge drug problems, you know, the murder rate was high. This is an area of massive social disadvantage. Well, two of the people involved in Operation Watts - Anthony Byrne, the member for Holt, the federal member for the area, and Adem Somyurek - their electorates covered places like Doveton and Dandenong and so forth. Labor heartlands. Well, at the last election, the Doveton booth, the last federal election, the Doveton booth got less than 50 per cent of the Labor vote for the first time ever. It used to get about 80 per cent. 

What's happening is I think that Labor has taken some of these places for granted. It's put in people like Someyurek who haven't serviced the electorate, they haven't gone out and built social movements, connected with the community, listened to their concerns. They've hidden away in their offices and tried to hide from the voters so they could spend all of their time on internal party matters. So what you're saying is that all this branch stacking and ballot stuffing and all of the factional activities that they engage upon are stopping the party from connecting with its grassroots and being what it should be - a party of the community.

And other parties now are coming, having seen that, are coming along to take that ground from Labor. You know, over the long term the Labor Party simply has to realise that this sort of factionalism is incredibly damaging to its brand, incredibly damaging to its membership, discouraging younger people from joining the party. And really it's just time to wind it up. You know, it's a creature of the 1960s. If Labor ignores this, if it thinks factionalism is just something that people aren't concerned about, well, it's kidding itself, because I think over the long term it's going to cost them a lot of seats in parliament. 

##RUBY:
Denis, thank you so much for your time today. 

##DENNIS:
My pleasure. Thanks for having me on. 

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##RUBY:
Also in the news today,

New data shows house prices in Australia are dropping at their fastest pace since the global financial crisis. 

Property analytics firm CoreLogic’s data shows that the nation's median property value has dropped by 2 per cent since the beginning of May.

The drop comes as higher interest rates deflate demand, with the RBA expected to announce another rate rise today.  

And New Zealand's borders have fully re-opened to visitors from around the world for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic closed them in March 2020.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said yesterday that it was an “enormous moment” after a “staged and cautious process”. 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*. See you tomorrow.

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