The notion that Nine’s 60 Minutes revelations about the appalling shenanigans of Victorian Labor power broker Adem Somyurek were a total surprise to ALP insiders deserves a horse laugh.
As one federal source says, anyone with any knowledge of the party’s factions knew this character ran the right in Victoria, based on branch stacks. It was one of those things treated as – well - normal.
But it apparently took journalist Nick McKenzie’s excellent public expose - with pictures, audio, and obvious political cost to Labor - to bring home to the insiders just how bad this was by any normal standards.
Daniel Andrews and Anthony Albanese were quick to react, and over two days state ministerial heads had rolled and the Victorian branch had been taken over by the Labor national executive and delivered into the safe hands of former premier Steve Bracks and former federal minister Jenny Macklin.
Problem smothered, Labor hoped.
Not exactly. This story was not just a drama but a thriller.
Somyurek was brought down by a sting carried out by surveillance, filmed and recorded in the office of Labor federal backbencher Anthony Byrne, who is more important than his status sounds because he’s deputy chair of the parliamentary committee on intelligence and security.
How the “hit” was organised remains unclear. What we do know is Somyurek and Byrne used to be “like brothers” (according to Somyurek), and then fell out, and now the former state minister is not just disgraced but under investigation by the authorities.
But the political death throes of a power broker can be ugly. Somyurek provided the media with a heap of fruity texts in which Byrne talked about wanting one Labor figure’s “head cut off” so he could “piss on his corpse”, as well as denigrating Andrews and Bill Shorten, and describing a woman as “dribbling shit”.
Then Somyurek looked into a camera and said “everything I know now about branch work, Anthony Byrne taught me”.
Byrne’s as yet unexplained role in the use of his office has brought into question whether he should retain the committee deputy chairmanship.
So far Albanese is backing him. Byrne has also been given a glowing personal reference by the committee’s Liberal chair, Andrew Hastie. Observers note Hastie and Byrne are joined at the hip on security issues, and, it seems, have drawn close at a personal level.
Asked about Byrne’s suitability, Morrison said, “it really is a test for Mr Albanese as to whether he believes that Mr Byrne should continue to serve on that committee”. Awkward.
The crisis has hit Albanese at the worst time – smack in the middle of the byelection in Eden-Monaro, a highly marginal Labor seat which he desperately needs to hold.
While the federal intervention was absolutely the right way to go, Albanese faltered somewhat in his responses during the week.
On Monday night – a full day after Sunday’s 60 Minutes – when he was asked in whose office the filming was done, Albanese told the ABC, “I’m not aware of all the details of that. That’s a matter for Channel Nine and 60 Minutes”.
Subsequently, he said he hadn’t talked to Byrne because the whole matter was being investigated by the Victorian anti-corruption body. By Thursday, after the Byrne texts has come out, Albanese said he’d “counselled” his federal MP about his language.
Albanese has over the years had a good record on the need for the party to be clean. But this week, while acting strongly for intervention, he also looked as though he was just trying to stay – publicly - as unengaged with the detail as possible.
The federal intervention, though the correct course, makes for a messy situation. The voting rights of party members have been suspended until 2023. All Victorian federal and state preselections are in the hands of the national executive, cutting out the say of (legitimate) party members. And it’s unclear how the Victorian branch will be represented at Labor’s national conference, if the coronavirus allows it to go ahead at the scheduled time late this year.
Some point out Albanese might be encouraged by comparisons with Gough Whitlam’s moves against the Victorian ALP that culminated in its restructuring in 1970 (and helped Whitlam to power in 1972). The parallel is limited, however.
For one thing, Whitlam made party reform a long term cause; Albanese has reacted to specific crises, in both NSW (after the affair of the Chinese donor with his cash in the Aldi bag) and Victoria.
For another Whitlam, in an era when the party organisation had much more control over policy, was pursuing a left wing union-dominated ideological clique in Victoria which was a handbrake on winning government. In this case, it’s the right involved, and no ideology.
For the moment, Albanese may be taking a small degree of comfort from the fact Labor’s latest scandal being in Victoria might lessen the publicity impact in Eden-Monaro.
Against the background of COVID, the Eden-Monaro contest is being conducted in the strangest of circumstances, making it particularly difficult to get a readout on this marginal seat.
Scott Morrison still carries the baggage of his poor performance during the bushfires, which hit this NSW electorate hard, and the problems with the recovery. But he’s been boosted by his management of COVID, and the huge government spending is still cushioning to a degree the devastating economic impact.
On Thursday the jobs figures saw Australia’s unemployment jumping to 7.1%, with 835,000 the total jobs lost in two months. Morrison warned there would be “more in the months ahead”. Millions of people are being shielded through JobKeeper.
Polling in single seats is notoriously unreliable, and this contest is complicated by 14 candidates. But for what it’s worth an Australia Institute poll of 643 on Monday night found Labor ahead on the two-party vote, 53%-47%. Asked which of a list “is the single most important issue for the federal government”, a third of voters selected the economy and a quarter chose climate change.
The byelection stakes have become very high for Albanese. A defeat would lead to muttering within Labor; that in turn would exacerbate the problems he’s having cutting through.
Even now, eyes are watching shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers. A recent flattering profile of Chalmers drew internal attention, and the government is seeking to needle.
Although no one suggests losing Eden-Monaro would mean any immediate challenge to Albanese, some in Labor do believe it would significantly reduce his prospect of taking the opposition to the election.
In preparing for that election, Labor could be running against the clock. While not due until early 2022, it could be late next year – which wouldn’t leave the opposition much time to find the stride it is missing at the moment.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra