The revelations in The Age this morning that high-profile western Melbourne numbers man, roving electorate officer par excellence and former Brimbank Councillor Costas Socratous has decided to rat on his former bosses came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the recent internal wranglings of the Victorian ALP.

Socratous’ deadly strike was in the works for months.

The former Theo Theophanous and Telmo Languiller fixer was hung out to dry by last year’s Ombudsman report into Brimbank Council. After being stood down by Theo, Socratous, desperate for a chop out, demanded a severance packages from the parliament and the Victorian WorkCover Authority, presumably as a pretext for keeping a lid on the stench that had lingered over the federal electorates of Gorton and Maribyrnong for years.

When Languiller used parliamentary privilege on May 5 to slam Socratous over a desperate approach to secure cash, the gloves were off with claims flying that Socratous had visited the state opposition to shop around his bag of bank statements and cheque stubs.

That offer was finally taken up by Age political editor Paul Austin, possibly with the assistance of Ted Baillieu’s crew of savvy media operatives.

It is worth reproducing Languiller’s extraordinary Legislative Assembly attack in full, in which he brands Socratous “the opposition leader’s Godwin Grech” and says the former Labor right loyalist had succumbed to a gambling addiction:

“Mr LANGUILLER (Derrimut) — It is with sadness I report to the house that on 25 March a senior leader from the Cypriot community of the northern suburbs came to see me in parliament and informed me that Mr Costas Socratous, former staffer and friend, had told him that he was out to get me. In a subsequent conversation he also told me that Mr Socratous had said that he would ‘force Telmo out of Parliament’.

“I now have a statutory declaration from Mr Cesar Piperno in which he recounts a conversation he had with Mr Socratous where he made threats against me because I had refused to help him unduly influence the Victorian WorkCover Authority to get a payout or to approach the President of the upper house to ‘help him’ with a $250,000 payout from the parliament.

“Mr Sam David, a former committee member of the Western Suburbs Soccer Club, has also provided a statutory declaration about Mr Socratous’s gambling habits and his alleged taking of $3000 from the Western Suburbs Soccer Club. I have referred the above matters to the police. I have also referred financial transactions that Mr Socratous was responsible for to the Parliament and to the ALP. I believe that the fact that I was unwilling to support his workers compensation case as stated above, coupled with the fact that I employed

“Mr David, who defeated Mr Socratous at the last Brimbank City Council election, made Mr Socratous angry with me and led consequently to his determination to cause me damage, whether in terms of my work or otherwise. “

But the most extraordinary passage is Languiller’s claim he saw Socratous entering the opposition’s offices on Spring Street, opposite the Victorian Parliament.

“At 10.45 am on 21 April I saw Mr Socratous enter the offices of the Leader of the Opposition. Mr Socratous is the opposition leader’s Godwin Grech. He is a troubled man who needs professional help, not political manipulation. He is a man who has an out-of-control gambling addiction.”

Sometime after visiting Baillieu’s office, Socratous apparently took his shame file to The Age. According to long-time members of the Victorian press gallery, Austin regularly benefits from a solid information flow from Baillieu’s office. Out of job and banished from the party, Socratous clearly had little to lose.

The problem, ALP insiders say, is that the evidence presented by The Age appears to be sketchy. Seemingly incriminating bank statements regularly do the rounds in factional and media circles but rarely see the light of day — chiefly because the wrongdoing is immensely difficult to prove.

“Is it worth more if Curly [Austin] puts it on the front page?” one senior factional source told Crikey this morning.

While The Age has reproduced a Commonwealth Bank Derrimut electorate account statement once controlled by Socratous, it takes him at his word that this money was then used to pay membership fees. Senior ALP figures, including all current and former state MPs named by Socratous, have denied the allegations. Craig Emerson and Julia Gillard stonewalled when asked about them in media interviews this morning.

A 2006 report by Austin’s colleague Michael Bachelard actually gets much closer to pinging fallen factional figures, including notorious bag man George Seitz, for out-and-out manipulation in Gorton and elsewhere.

The problem, of course, is nothing much has changed. Way back in 2005, Socratous was charged by Independents faction rabble-rouser Eric Dearricott following a slew of irregularities detailed in an internal party investigation revealed forgery and phantom branch meetings across the electorate.

The other factor underlying the allegations is the factional cleavage that sill divides the Labor Right in Victoria, with Socratous’ former colleagues aligned to Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy at war with the renegade Shop Assistants Union and the National Union of Workers.

Last year, branch stacking reforms were pursued by the Victorian branch in the wake of the Brimbank fallout, although that inquiry was later branded a failure by the Independents who helped set it up, chiefly because the factions were unmoved. Reformers, all of whom purport to hate the practice, are broadly split between wanting to open up the party (with the recent “primary” in Kilsyth listed a key reform) and those who want to further crack down with tighter rules at the expense of a more vibrant membership.

This time, Crikey understands senior figures within the state party are desperate to contain the fallout in an election year and have counselled the usual champions of reform against speaking out.

Peter Fray

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