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Corruption and Patronage Are the Norm in the Australian Labor Party

Earlier this year, disgraced former MP Adem Somyurek joined the long list of Labor politicians to be investigated for corruption. Somyurek was no outlier — the nepotism and cronyism he practiced are just part of the day-to-day running of the Australian Labor Party.

Adem Somyurek speaks to the media.

Another day, another right-wing Australian Labor Party (ALP) power broker in the dock. This time, it’s Adem Somyurek’s turn. Formerly the convener of Victoria’s 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 Andrews’s cabinet as the minister for small business and local government. In June this year, Somyurek resigned from the ALP after the party’s 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 Andrews’s controversial pandemic laws, earning praise from the right-wing Daily Mail and Murdoch’s 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 ALP’s systematically corrupt practices, his testimony is a fascinating insight into Labor’s party machine. It’s also a window into the mindset that regards this corruption as completely normal.

Somyurek’s 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 isn’t 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 Somyurek’s 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 it’s me, and I’m an aberration, and I’m an outlier. I’m not.” He was right — patronage and corruption is the Labor Right’s business model.

Public Funds for Political Patronage

Somyurek wasn’t 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, Somyurek’s 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 isn’t a new development for Labor’s dominant right-wing faction. Although New South Wales Labor probably holds the distinction of being Labor’s most corrupt state branch, Victorian Labor is a close second.

From 2015 to 2018, the “red shirts” scandal dogged the Victoria’s 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 Australia’s 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.

It’s 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, it’s 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 Victoria’s 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 Somyurek’s evidence revealed, the Labor Right depends on publicly funded, full-time organizers. Indeed, if electoral staffers change their factional alignment, they are usually sacked.

Publicly Funded Nepotism

Adem Somyurek’s 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 Melhem’s son as an electoral officer. Meanwhile, former minister for finance Robin Scott employed Vaghela’s daughter — just as he had employed Vaghela before her. It’s all very cozy — and these practices occur at all levels of the Australian Labor Party. Right-wing federal MP Joel Fitzgibbon isn’t 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 dad’s electoral officer.

As odious as his factional activities were, Adem Somyurek is right about one thing. He isn’t an aberration or an outlier. He isn’t 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.