IBAC commissioner gets tough, knocks back calls for Andrews to appear

Former Labor powerbroker Adem Somyurek had his most uncomfortable day in the IBAC witness box on Thursday, the same day the agency’s commissioner made his most important declaration about the probe’s scope.

The MP was presented with phone taps that showed his knowledge of (potentially illegal) signature forgery, admitted “countless” staff were hired to recruit party members and faced allegations that he asked for his office budget to be used to buy stamps for a political ally.

Adem Somyurek in the witness box on Thursday.

The back-to-back compromising revelations late on Thursday morning prompted counsel assisting Chris Carr, SC, to pause his specific lines of questioning and ask a “vibe” question.

“The evidence thus far doesn’t paint a picture of you as a man with strong moral objections to the diversion of taxpayer resources for your factional purposes. Do you accept that?” he asked.

Somyurek – who Commissioner Robert Redlich has warned several times not to deflect or be obstructive – said he could not give a yes or no answer.

“I’m not trying to be difficult here,” he said.

“You either had a moral objection or you did not,” Commissioner Redlich forcefully interjected.

Earlier this week, Somyurek argued there was a “sliding scale” of misconduct. It was acceptable, he argued, for some taxpayer-funded staff to do factional work between sending emails but that was not something that could be compared with “gold-standard” rorts such as the red shirts scheme.

The community may accept this argument has some merit. Political staffers are political people and delineating their obsession with the Labor Party from their day jobs working for Labor MPs is difficult. Somyurek was appealing to proportionality and making a pub test argument.

But evidence presented this week shows Somyurek’s faction exploited the murkiness of state legislation governing electorate officers. By his own admission, his office and those of his allies were commonly populated by people whose sole job was to recruit party members, including some whose activities he had no oversight over.

The worst misconduct came during the “war period” in 2019 and 2020 when he was going hammer and tongs in a stacking war against the Socialist Left. It was then that Somyurek asked former friend Anthony Byrne to give Somyurek’s son extra shifts to make more cash to pay for branch stacking (the extra shifts didn’t eventuate).

“I was in a bad period, I was desperate at that time, I crossed multiple lines, I accept that, but it didn’t happen,” he said, knowing there’s no pub in Australia whose test this behaviour would pass.

Somyurek has waffled and sought to rationalise wrongdoing, but he has also posed interesting questions about the paradigm in which IBAC’s lawyers are operating. His gist is that IBAC is venturing too far and meandering in the normal operation of politics and the autonomy of politicians to direct their staff.

He referred to a section of the Equal Opportunity Act allowing MPs to discriminate “on the basis of political belief or activity” when hiring staff. When presented with another state law requiring MPs to prove value for money when hiring staff, he argued the most valuable thing to him might be hiring an ethnic community organiser to engage with that section of his constituent. If that organiser was also recruiting people to his Labor faction, well so be it.

His other argument is that all factions have done exactly what he did to amass power, and have been doing so for decades. It may be correct to say other factions carry out some of the same practices, but that does not make it right.

IBAC has faced weeks of criticism from some media commentators and the opposition, who have attacked the focus on Somyurek’s faction and urged IBAC to look into other Labor groups and call Premier Daniel Andrews to address allegations he also branch stacked and was warned about the red shirts rort.

After lunch, Redlich said the calls for other political actors to be called were misguided because IBAC was constrained by its underpinning legislation, which only allows it to compel witnesses “relevant to the misconduct of the individuals under investigation”.

He claimed Andrews government reforms in 2020 – which he said IBAC objected to – added to the “significant limitation” on IBAC to hold public hearings. “ICAC in NSW and CCC in QLD are not constrained in the same way … Those constraints, if they are to be addressed, need to take place through legislative reform,” he said.

The eminent former judge’s set-piece was defensive and could be read as a tacit acknowledgement that the inquiry’s scope either could, or should, have been wider. Or, it may have been a rebuke of unhelpful media barracking. It was definitely a plea to the government to give the agency more teeth.

Either way, it means Victorians may never learn if the practices that have been aired over the past few weeks are widespread across the entire Labor Party or confined to one faction.

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