By Nick McKenzie, Joel Tozer, and Sumeyya Ilanbey, originally published in the Age 15 June 2020.
A Victorian Labor Party powerbroker has threatened to end the careers of several federal MPs, while also claiming to be “protecting” Anthony Byrne, deputy chair of the Australian Parliament’s powerful intelligence committee.
Secret footage shows MP Adem Somyurek handing cash to a Labor party staffer in a suburban car park. Warning: offensive language.
Mr Somyurek, who says he controls nearly two-thirds of the Victorian ALP, has been captured on secret audio and video recordings running an “industrial-scale” branch-stacking operation that would reshape the make-up of Labor Party branches at federal and state level and give him control of which MPs sit in Parliament.
As a member of the ALP national executive, and with his control over Labor Party branches, Mr Somyurek has huge sway over who gets the right to contest federal seats or is gifted a safe seat.
His operations involve secret cash drop offs to pay for fake Labor members and using taxpayer-funded political advisers and staffers to stack branches, as he tries to topple state and federal MPs.
Federal MPs Rob Mitchell (McEwen), Julian Hill (Bruce) and Joanne Ryan (Lalor) are all on Mr Somyurek’s hit list, while he says rising stars Josh Burns (Macnamara) and Tim Watts, (Gellibrand) rely on his support.
“Tim Watts is like bowing to me. I don’t know what they say behind my back,” Mr Somyurek said in a video in which he imitates Mr Watts bowing to him.
In another recording, Mr Somyurek said: “They’re all saying that I’m going to kill people … I did call in Robert Mitchell and told him that he needs to think about his future.
“I told Mitchell he’s got to retire … I said when are you going?”
In comments made after Mr Somyurek, as local government minister, sacked a council earlier this year, he boasted about removing Mr Hill from Parliament. “I’m looking forward to this, actually. In between sacking councils and stuff, I’ll be sacking Julian,” he said.
However, Mr Somyurek insists he is “protecting” Anthony Byrne, the member for Holt and deputy chair of the federal Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.
“Anthony’s got a terrible reputation; everyone thinks he’s a waste of space. I don’t. I protect him. I had to stop articles talking about Anthony Byrne going. I said ‘he’s got my protection, he’s going nowhere’.”
He boasts about toying with Ms Ryan, whom he is also trying to topple. “She’s [Joanne Ryan] always going on about me,” Mr Somyurek said.
The extensive recordings captured over a year raise serious questions about Mr Somyurek’s conduct and capture him boasting about his power within Labor and denigrating many state and federal colleagues, including Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.
“F— the Premier,” he said on one tape while in another he says he will be running Victoria if Mr Andrews steps down. “I’ll be just running the joint … It’s who I say is going to be the f—ing Premier.”
Mr Somyurek, the head of the moderates – Labor’s dominant Right faction in Victoria – has declined requests for an interview but emphatically denies he is involved in branch-stacking – the unethical process of harvesting members among people who have no intention of joining a political party.
Branch-stacking allows political powerbrokers to control the numbers in a grassroots branch, which help decide the candidacy of local federal and state members of Parliament. ALP rules prohibit the practice of paying for other people’s membership and require members to sign a form declaring they have paid for their membership.
“I’m more powerful than all of them put together,” he said in one tape, referring to other Labor powerbrokers. In another recording, he says, “our people have been putting like industrial-scale numbers, you know, just f…ing masses for a year” before describing plans to launch a “big f…ing stackathon” in Melbourne’s south-east.
The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes have seen copies of the membership forms used by Mr Somyurek in his branch-stacking operations and have spoken to several of the new recruits. Some admitted they did not pay for their memberships while others were unable to name the premier of Victoria.
Mr Somyurek has also been captured on camera handing a folder containing $2000 and dozens of party membership forms to Nick McLennan, an adviser working for Marlene Kairouz, another Andrews government minister.
Mr McLennan used the money Mr Somyurek withdrew from an ATM on May 13 to pay for new members. A month earlier, the pair made a similar cash drop-off.
Mr Somyurek is captured on tape after the April 13 drop-off saying: “Well if he [Mr McLennan] gets caught on the street he’d better not say he’s doing f…ing this stuff”.
Mr McLennan declined to answer questions, while Ms Kairouz did not respond to questions about branch-stacking.
Political staffers are funded by taxpayers and meant to assist MPs on policy, media or electorate work that benefits the community. The abuse of public resources for political purposes was made unlawful after the “red shirts scandal” that engulfed the Andrews government in 2015, leading to an ombudsman inquiry and police raids.
Geoffrey Watson SC, a barrister and director of the Centre for Public Integrity, said using taxpayer-funded parliamentary staff to branch stack could be “a criminal offence”.
“If that was proved, it would be a strong case for criminal offences, and multiple criminal offences,” Mr Watson said.
“I mean, it is a diversion of public money for an ulterior or improper motive and that’s just misconduct in public office, a very serious offence which carries a hefty jail term,” he said.
Mr Somyurek was appointed Minister for Local Government by Mr Andrews in 2018 despite a patchy record. His previous stint in cabinet, in the first term of the Andrews government, was cut short in 2015 following an allegation of bullying when he was small business, innovation and trade minister. When he was a backbencher in 2009, he lost his job as chair of the Electoral Matters Committee for a driving offence.
Former NSW senator Sam Dastyari said the incentive to recruit a legion of members was very high, and described the practice of paying for other people’s membership as a “horrible, dirty tactic”.
“The stakes, when it comes to winning in a Labor Party, are incredibly high,” Mr Dastyari said.
“You’re talking about seats … in federal Parliament, seats in state Parliament, who the local mayor’s going to be, premiers, prime ministers — the stakes couldn’t be higher. And when the stakes are that high … there is always going to be a perverse incentive, pushing people to go too far.”
Mr Somyurek has boasted about his influence in federal Parliament and is dismissive of Mr Albanese’s authority.
“I’m having discussions with people who are close to Albo,” Mr Somyurek said. “Who’s going to protect Albo?”
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd said Mr Somyurek was a “kingpin” and “Frankenstein” of the ALP and called on Mr Albanese and Mr Andrews to expel him from the party if he was shown to be involved in misconduct.
“He should be booted out. Very simple. And if they’ve [Mr Somyurek or his allies] fallen afoul of the law, throw the book at them,” Mr Rudd said.