ADEM SOMYUREK BRANCH STACKING ALP labor
(Image: AAP/Daniel Pockett)

Well, life comes at you pretty fast in the Victorian ALP. Also, another substance, once it hits the fan.

Last week Adem Somyurek was on track to control a big chunk of the federal Labor Party and most of Victoria. This week, he’s out of the party, and the two lieutenants in his mini-faction — Robin Scott (MLA for Preston) and Marlene Kairouz (MLA for Kororoit) — are out of the ministry (and, I would imagine, under threat as preselections are spilled).

Fifty years after the federal party intervened in the Victorian branch to prevent the Socialist Left from opposing state funding for private and church schools, Socialist Left Victorian premier Dan Andrews has invited the federal party in to take over management from the state executive.

The symmetry is near-perfect, because it was the school funding stoush that pretty much brought the modern Labor faction system into being, stabilising two or three big groups, a Left and a Right, with their own caucuses, issues pre-decided before they hit the full party level. 

It’s because of the most recent fragmenting of this that Adem Somyurek, an outer-suburban, Upper House member with no strong union background, was able to build a faction out of almost nothing.

It’s also why he could be so effectively set up and nobbled — his Mods squad had even less of a union/movement base than the mini-factions run by Shorten and Conroy, et al, that emerged in the 1990s.

Someone wanted Adem Somyurek decommissioned very, very badly, and whoever did it (as we noted in Tips and Murmurs yesterday) had access to surveillance with a clarity good enough to record a Steely Dan album.

Somyurek succeeded first because there was an extreme vacuum on the party’s right in Victoria. It had been unstable since the Shoppies and three other DLP unions had been readmitted to the ALP in 1985.

The right that had remained inside the party was pragmatic. The SDA was Catholic, socially ideological, anti-communist, pro-US. It began to amass power as the mainstream right began to fracture, as union membership began to fall, unions ceased to be a focus of working-class life, and that class was itself decomposed by the destruction of Australian manufacturing.

By the ’90s, the practice of importing student politicians into official union positions to run factional politics had the effect of creating sub-factions run by David Feeney (SDA), Stephen Conroy (Transport Workers) and Bill Shorten (AWU).

Feeney proved so successful at winning friends and influencing people that fellow party members put a fake death notice in the paper for him when he was ousted from the Steve Bracks machine in the 2000s.

That left Shorten and Conroy to create an alliance of their two sub-factions — based around student friendships, traded favours and people knowing where some metaphorical bodies were buried — the Short-Cons (how these Goodfellas tragics loved that nickname!). 

Feeney would return to the Victorian SDA, but the old ideological strand of the faction (overwhelmingly Irish- and Italian-Australian) became so rigid they were nicknamed the “Taliban”. The SDA had become a home for ethnic-community supported candidates, backed by Turks, Lebanese and others — suburban-conservative, but less ideological.

They were excluded from power for that, both ideologically and for sheer clannishness, and Somyurek — initially a staffer in SDA-aligned MP Anthony Byrne’s office — was the leader in creating an internal sub-faction known as the Mods (or Moderates).

Quite possibly it would have stayed with the SDA, had it been given a slice of the action, but old-school Catholic, anti-Muslim chauvinism pretty much prevented the old guard from seeing this. 

Somyurek and the Mods were offered a chance to grow their mum ‘n’ dad state faction when the Short-Cons came apart spectacularly, as mutual suspicion between the two groups as to who would double-cross first brought on a double cross and the AWU undermined the Conroy group (it’s too complicated for this article).

Conroy got his revenge in magnificent fashion, announcing his retirement from politics while Shorten was on an overseas trip — pretty much at the actual moment Billy Bob was flying over the Canadian tundra, thousands of kilometres from a phone.

The scramble to realign favoured Somyurek and his Mods for one big reason: the relative unity of ethnic groups such as Turkish-Australians, Lebanese-Australians, and now Indian-Australians, and the ability of leaders to “deliver” them in taking over branches.

The Turks had already got up John “Butterdish” Eren in Lara (having helped his boss Richard Marles to take Corio from a sitting member in 2007). Now Adem Somyurek came towards Spring Street, up Mulgrave Freeway like the Seljuks swooping out of central Asia towards Constantinople in the 1200s.

The advantage? As unions have withered as genuine workers’ community organisations, the close communal links of “ethnic” groups have remained. As Somyurek said on “those” tapes, “Anglos don’t stick around”. Non-Anglos from more traditional cultures will, out of collective being.

Once you stack a branch with Turks or Indians, it stays stacked. They’re the Marie Kondos of party subversion. 

Somyurek had caught the rest of the Labor right napping, and they scrambled to react, as the Sultan of Springvale began his head-scything charge across the Melbourne suburbs, taking branch after branch. 

But Somyurek had relied on simply taking over the remnants of Conroy’s branch operation as its power declined — Somyurek’s reentry to state Cabinet was complemented by the rolling of Conroy loyalists Johnny Butterdish and Philip Dalidakis, and Dalidakis is not an easy man to roll.

When the shattered remnants of the Conroy machine went with Albanese, Somyurek’s plan fell to pieces; hence his bitter barney involving the (alleged) traditional “Dance of the Butterknife”, with Johnny Eren in the dining room of Victoria’s Parliament House.

Somyurek’s loss of judgement may date from that point: he realised he would have to perform an old-school stack, with a complex array of small groups, and that would involve what has been caught on camera: paying for the memberships of people who have no interest in joining the party per se.

From the 60 Minutes tapes, Somyurek appears to have known that he was being surveilled, but did not suspect he was being filmed and taped in the Treasury Offices, as he ran the operation. 

Still, by now, he had created a “Centre Unity” alliance with Shorten’s AWU, and that had given him the back channel to create a deal with the new CFMMEU-centred Industrial Left.

The ultimate aim was to draw the SDA in too, to a new superfaction, which could challenge the dominance of Kim Carr and the Socialist Left — and then dictate terms to the “National Left” headed by Albanese from NSW. The SDA never joined, the right realised it had created a monster, as Somyurek became megalomaniacal, and the rest will hopefully soon be available as a series of podcasts. 

So what now?

The vacuum in part of the right leaves Shorten and the AWU with a chance to take control, or for the new UWU (the old NUW + United Voice) to stake a claim — a right union that acts like a left one; i.e. actually represents its members, and has strikes — but it also leaves scope for the Conroy forces to regroup.

Hence, one suspects, the formation of the pro-coal “Otis” group, by Conroyette Richard Marles. It’s an MPs policy group at this stage, but Marles and Co really have nothing else: no unions and no branches.

The pro-coal push is directly aimed at contesting the Socialist Left’s identification with renewables and a green new deal, and offering the faction and the party up to fossil fuels for support.

Cameron Milner, former Victorian colleague of both Shorten and Conroy, has been a coal lobbyist (for Shenhua) for a number of years after leaving the ALP (and returning to run Shorten’s 2016 campaign). 

Somyurek still has sway from outside the party. To try and counter that, the Victorian rolls will be purged, it will come down to court fights, the stoush will burn through cash, and there will be biffo.

If it isn’t the occasion for a thorough reconstruction of the ALP, the party will come out of it worse than before, the long afterlife of once-stable factions continued into a new decade.

Cue the late Warren Zevon MLC (death is not a disqualifying condition from Victoria’s Upper House): send lawyers, guns and money, the party’s hit the fan.

Peter Fray

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