Corruption and Patronage Are the Norm in the Australian Labor Party – Jacobin magazine

Posted: November 23, 2021 at 4:13 pm

Another day, another right-wing Australian Labor Party (ALP) power broker in the dock. This time, its Adem Somyureks turn. Formerly the convener of Victorias Labor Right faction, this month he testified before the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC).

Prior to being exposed, Somyurek served in Victorian Labor premier Daniel Andrewss cabinet as the minister for small business and local government. In June this year, Somyurek resigned from the ALP after the partys federal leader, Anthony Albanese, moved to expel him. With no principles or power left to lose, Somyurek has opted for a scorched-earth strategy. Last week, he posed as an unlikely defender of democracy by pledging his upper-house vote against Daniel Andrewss controversial pandemic laws, earning praise from the right-wing Daily Mail and Murdochs Herald Sun.

The week before, Somyurek decided to lay all of his cards on the table before the IBAC. Because he knows more than perhaps anyone about the Victorian ALPs systematically corrupt practices, his testimony is a fascinating insight into Labors party machine. Its also a window into the mindset that regards this corruption as completely normal.

Somyureks self-justifications ranged from the sublimely cynical to the ridiculous. For example, he claimed that branch stacking was affirmative action by stealth for ethnic minorities. A little bit of corruption isnt corrupt, he suggested, as long as it is kept proportionate. Collecting and completing ballots en masse, Somyurek proposed, should be understood as part of an Asian collectivist ethos, opposed to Anglo-Saxon individualistic libertarianism.

As eyebrow-raising as most of Somyureks excuses for corruption were, he was right about one thing. At one point in the hearing, IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich stated that Somyurek is living proof of the consequences of being brought up over decades in this unethical culture. Somyurek agreed, before adding, The trick is not to just think its me, and Im an aberration, and Im an outlier. Im not. He was right patronage and corruption is the Labor Rights business model.

Somyurek wasnt the only one combining the responsibilities of elected office with factional maneuvering. His staff members also spent time organizing for the Right faction, also on the public payroll. While sitting in state-funded offices, Somyureks staffers ran right-wing branch meetings. While collecting state-funded salaries, they harvested ALP ballot papers from members of stacked-out branches before filling them out in bulk to secure the preselection of right-wing factional allies.

Using public funds in this way isnt a new development for Labors dominant right-wing faction. Although New South Wales Labor probably holds the distinction of being Labors most corrupt state branch, Victorian Labor is a close second.

From 2015 to 2018, the red shirts scandal dogged the Victorias branch of the ALP. The party employed part-time electorate officers, who are publicly funded and prohibited from engaging in political activities during working hours, to don red shirts and organize electoral campaigns in marginal seats. The intention was to save Labor money and allow it to spend more than Australias strict electoral finance caps. The party paid these red shirts as part-time campaigners, while their wages were topped up by their sinecure employment as electorate officers. The result was that the red shirts effectively campaigned full time on public money.

As the Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass found in 2018, the red shirts notionally worked for MPs who had limited contact with their employees. The politicians were uniformly (and conveniently) unaware of what their paid staff actually did day to day. Following a Herald Sun investigation and a High Court appeal, the Victorian ombudsman concluded that twenty-one Labor MPs had misused $388,000 of public money. In early November, whistleblowers leaked police files revealing that the fraud squad wanted to arrest and charge up to sixteen right-wing Labor MPs. However, senior Victoria police officers intervened to prevent these arrests and ensure that the case files remained secret.

To most observers, the red shirts scheme seemed outrageous. Meanwhile, Labor Right activists could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. For them, these kinds of practices are entirely normal.

Its not hard to understand their logic. Every member of parliament is granted funding to employ multiple full-time electoral officers, paid up to $269,631 per annum. In theory, these staff members are paid to respond to letters from constituents and to act on their complaints. In practice, very few people can name the local MP who is supposed to represent them. Fewer still would think of lodging complaints with their office.

As a result, electorate officers are free to spend their time on party activities or campaigning in elections. For upper house MPs, its even easier to use electorate officers for factional work because the upper house is elected by proportional representation, and MPs have no particular constituents. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the red shirts scandal centered on Victorias upper house.

If parliamentary staffers duties are light and largely tedious, why do these jobs exist? The answer is to maintain party machines. Faction leaders give factional activists paid jobs as parliamentary staffers both to reward service and to guarantee ongoing loyalty. In return, these staffers spend their time stacking branches and harvesting ballots, with little obligation to do real work in between. As Somyureks evidence revealed, the Labor Right depends on publicly funded, full-time organizers. Indeed, if electoral staffers change their factional alignment, they are usually sacked.

Adem Somyureks patronage network was motivated by more than just politics it was also personal. In his IBAC testimony, Somyurek admitted that he arranged to put his own son on the payroll at the electorate office of a factional ally. Allegedly, Somyurek pocketed the salary himself as payment for a debt owed by the MP to Somyurek. It was a clear-cut case of using public resources to repay a private favor.

Again, Somyurek excused this as neither curious nor unusual. He was right. If you mapped out where the children of Labor Right MPs are employed, the result would be a political dynasty more incestuous than the Habsburgs. For example, former consumer affairs minister Marlene Kairouz put her own mother and sister on the payroll. She also added the daughter and nephew of legislative council president Nazih Elasmar, as well as the husband of her colleague Kaushaliya Vaghela.

In turn, Vaghela hired MP Cesar Melhems son as an electoral officer. Meanwhile, former minister for finance Robin Scott employed Vaghelas daughter just as he had employed Vaghela before her. Its all very cozy and these practices occur at all levels of the Australian Labor Party. Right-wing federal MP Joel Fitzgibbon isnt just a coal apologist. He is also a member of the Bunyip aristocracy who inherited his seat from his father after working for six years as his dads electoral officer.

As odious as his factional activities were, Adem Somyurek is right about one thing. He isnt an aberration or an outlier. He isnt even an especially egregious crook. The Australian Labor Party is stacked to the brim with other Somyureks he was just unlucky enough to get caught.

Corruption and Patronage Are the Norm in the Australian Labor Party - Jacobin magazine

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