An anti-corruption investigation in the Australian state of Victoria has claimed its first scalp with Minister for Disability, Ageing and Carers Luke Donnellan, resigning hours into the first day of public hearings where he was accused of “branch stacking.”
Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) is conducting a broad investigation into “serious corrupt conduct” and the misuse of public money for “party-political work or other improper purposes.”
One issue under the spotlight is branch stacking.
Australian political parties choose representatives to stand for office via a preselection system that relies on members in each electoral branch voting for their preferred candidate.
Practitioners of branch stacking will recruit and sign-up members to influence the outcome of preselecting candidates. While not illegal, the practice is banned under Australian Labor Party (ALP) rules.
Federal Labor Member of Parliament Anthony Byrne, the first witness to testify on Oct. 11, gave a damning indictment of the prevalence of branch stacking in Victoria, saying it was “out of control.”
“I saw things and heard things that I didn’t think I’d ever see in a modern Labor party,” he told the inquiry.
“I’m referring to branch stacking. I’m referring to the coercion of staff being made to do things they didn’t want to do. I was referring to the party being taken over by one person whose sole objective was power and power alone.”
Byrne said several state members of Parliament were involved in branch stacking, including Adem Somyurek, Marlene Kairouz, Tim Richardson, Katie Hall, Tien Kieu, Meng Heang Tak, and Luke Donnellan.
The IBAC investigation was triggered—and ordered by Premier Dan Andrews last year—after a special report by 60 Minutes and The Age exposed the extent of the practice.
Following its publication, MPs Adem Somyurek, Marlene Kairouz, and Robin Scott resigned from the cabinet but remained on the backbench while denying the allegations in the expose.
Meanwhile, not long after Byrne’s claims, Luke Donnellan announced his resignation, saying he had notified Premier Dan Andrews that he would be stepping down and moving to the backbench.
“I accept that I have previously breached party rules while a minister.
“But let me be very clear: I never misused public funds or resources in any way. And this has absolutely nothing to do with my staff.
“However, I don’t believe it is possible or appropriate to maintain my ministerial responsibilities given these rule breaches. The work to support vulnerable Victorians is too important, especially during the pandemic.”
Premier Andrews thanked Donnellan for his contribution to the government in a statement released the same day.
“He has been a passionate advocate for vulnerable kids, people with disability and older Victorians, and he leaves a legacy of reform of which he can be proud.
“Luke’s work has seen a transformation of the system for children and families in Victoria, investing in hundreds of dedicated child protection workers and navigators to do their important work supporting families and kids—making sure they have the stable foundation to begin their lives.”
The premier said because of ongoing inquiries, he would not comment further.
Byrne, meanwhile, said he observed Somyurek and Kairouz coerce paid staff to do factional work “to the exclusion of just about anything else.”
He also said Somyurek had threatened to “take people out” of preselection, including MPs Gabrielle Williams and Pauline Richards, while others would be rewarded for their branch stacking activities, including Kaushaliya Vaghela.
Byrne and Somyurek were close allies in the ALP’s moderate faction but had a falling out in 2019, in part, due to Byrne’s concerns over branch stacking.
He also admitted to paying the membership fees of party members since 1999, saying it was part of a “well-entrenched” model.
Byrne had spent around $10,000 in the past five years, including using cash from fundraisers kept in a “kitty” in the office.
The federal MP said Somyurek and just-resigned Donnellan would have spent “roughly the same amount, perhaps more in the past couple of years” on ALP memberships. Both had previously worked in Byrne’s office.
The IBAC hearings, part of a joint investigation dubbed “Operation Watts” with the Victorian Ombudsman, will continue investigating the allegations for the next five weeks.