Student politics — the springboard into many notable political careers — can be hostile, exploitative and hierarchical, as brutally demonstrated by last month’s revelations of former Victorian Labor MP Adem Somyurek’s alleged branch stacking.
But when young party members are involved in repeated scandals, what habits are our future politicians forming?
The recent Age/60 Minutes investigation into Somyurek’s alleged orchestration of branch stacking on an “industrial scale”, based on dozens of phone and video recordings obtained by Nine, implicate him and others.
Although widely condemned by ALP members, Somyurek’s actions reflect a broader culture that sees sexism and corruption reinforced by such behaviour being tolerated at a student politics level.
Somyurek seemed to use young political staffers not only to assert political domination over the Victorian Labor Party, but also as collateral in the power struggle of factional politics.
The footage revealed two former La Trobe University student union presidents, Jacob Cripps and Nathan Croft, were involved in Somyurek’s efforts to branch stack and consolidate power.
(As well as their involvement in the student union, Cripps and Croft hold top positions in the National Unions of Students.)
Although often under-reported, factional formulations at a student politics level are integral to understanding ideological party divides in state and federal politics. Many current and former MPs have succeeded in politics as a result of the factional partnerships forged in their student politics days.
The Somyurek scandal is not the first time Young Labor members have been caught breaking party rules.
In 2017 Jesse Cuthbert and Ivan Xie were accused of stealing Victorian Greens election data and voter details after posing as party volunteers. In March that year, Young Labor members linked with Bill Shorten were fined $1000 each after vandalising Greens material.
Along with corruptive activities, the blatant sexism and bullying uncovered in the Somyurek scandal can also be seen in Labor’s youth branch.
In February last year ACT Young Labor members Nick Douros, Niall Cummins and Francis Claessens were accused of bullying a female member to force her out of the party. Messages between the trio referred to the member as a “rat” and that they were going to “bully the fuck out of her”.
After an internal party investigation, Douros resigned as a staffer for Senator David Smith. Yet seven months later Douros was nominated as national secretary of Young Labor.
The Somyurek scandal clearly demonstrates the abuse of power between politicians and young political staffers. Young party members are expected to undertake the legal dirty work of campaigning — handing out leaflets, doorknocking, recruitment and working long hours for MPs — all in the hopes of gaining the experience and connections needed to make it in the upper echelons of the party.
But the extremes to which young members of all political parties are expected to perform coercive tactics is unclear.
The power imbalance can leave them open to allegations of misconduct without the shield of a PR team that’s often afforded to politicians.
In a period of declining political party membership, and in a culture that often tolerates bullying and exploitation, can we really accept that young politicians are just unfortunate casualties of factional warfare? Or is it time for political hopefuls at universities to be held accountable for their immoral actions?
How do we fix Australia’s student politics? Are young hopefuls being exploited by the political establishment? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.
Kate Clayton is a casual academic in international relations at La Trobe University.
Emily Foley is a PhD candidate in politics and casual academic at La Trobe University.