The rise and rise of Adem Somyurek

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On a warm spring Melbourne night in October 2009, the great and the good of the Victorian Labor Party Right gathered at the Dragon Boat on the Yarra, a restaurant in a now demolished brutalist building near the World Trade Centre on Spencer Street bridge.

The crowd came in in dribs and drabs — some numbskull had put the Dragon Boat’s nominal Spencer Street address on the invite, so groupers and shoppies were wandering around the Hoddle Grid for half an hour — and the guest of honour party baron, outgoing state secretary Stephen Newnham, must have looked around nervously. But also with relief.

This was the usual Labor Right deal: a fare-thee-well-good-comrade for a player who’d been knifed after months of bitter attack. Now here he was, encased in concrete, close to a body of water, not an unfamiliar experience in the Labor Right’s history. But it was a Chinese restaurant! A goddamn Chinese restaurant! (It’s always a Chinese restaurant. If you shot the Right onto Mars, they’d find a Chinese restaurant. It’s colonial re-enactment, the White Australia Policy with MSG).

Newnham’s departure was the capper to a vicious year or two in the Victorian Right; and one that set the agenda of the ALP for a decade to come. It would take Victorian Labor to a loss they could have avoided, in 2010, but also help ensure their victory in 2014, and stunning national recovery.

Now, after a decade, the Stability Pact, the product of Labor’s 2008-10 wars, is coming under more pressure than ever before. The sudden plethora of new players — Adem Somyurek, the Moderates, Centre Unity, etc — are all shards coming off that year-long war a decade-back.

Stability Pact loyalists say they’re just another suicidal factional outbreak, each more clueless than the last. The Mods and the Industrial Left say they’re something new, a process of democratisation within the limited processes the party rules offer.

Whatever the view, much of the obsession centres around Somyurek, the Turkish-born MLC, initially elected to Eumemmerring, and later the Metro South East division, a branch-based politician, with a power base around Springvale.

Somyurek is no flabby grouper-hack of the old school. Smart, educated, he favours the Mediterranean style of grey cotton suits and open-necked white shirt, which these days make him look like a Green. But though he has a masters in public policy and is the shiny new Right, he first came to the public’s attention through old Right ways: getting pinged for driving without a licence in 2009, when Labor was drowning in scandals, as outer north and west branches controlled by the Right were being stacked wantonly, and a Labor government had to sack a Labor council in the area (Brimbank), a year before the election

The war had begun a year earlier, in 2008, when Labor Unity, the one big Right faction, had been convulsed by internal conflict, with the core group being split away from, and attacked, by a group centred on the SDA (the Catholic, right-wing Shoppies union), the National Union of Workers (NUW), and state and federal members loyal to David Feeney, then in the pre-absurdist phase of his career. Both called themselves Labor Unity; the pre-split group prevailed, and the SDA/NUW/Feeney group became known as the “Rebel Right”, sometimes “The Taliban”. The latter nickname did double, politically incorrect duty, referring both to the Shoppies’ social conservatism, and to the base of Turkish and Lebanese votes signed up by Feeney’s numbers man, one Adem Somyurek.

There was talk of reunification, at the same time as the “Taliban” explored an arrangement with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and other militantly left unions. But it was only when the NUW started a headbanging pre-election campaign to have the Shorten-aligned Newnham deposed, that Right reunification was abandoned, and Labor Unity concluded a deal with the Socialist Left (SL). Labor Unity became dominated by the Shorten-Conroy alliance, the Shortcons, and the Stability Pact was born.

The NUW split from the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) soon after. But the mainstream pact held and played a huge role in delivering an unlikely state victory in 2014, a key turning point in Labor’s fortunes.

In April 2015, with much fanfare, the Moderates — a handful of MLAs and MLCs — led, or fronted, by Somyurek, split from the SDA, and rejoined Labor Unity, the new so-called superfaction being redubbed Centre Unity, and holding around 65% control of the POSC — the Public Office Selection Committee, which finalises candidacies.

The love-in did not last long. In May 2015, Somyurek was suspended from the ministry after his former chief of staff Dimity Paul accused him of bullying and physical handling in the office. Somyurek claimed that Paul was an SDA loyalist, and that the accusations were payback. A report concluded that Paul’s account was more reliable than Somyurek’s denials, and in July 2015, he resigned from the ministry, hurling accusations of “a fix” at SDA head Michael Donovan, and SDA-aligned deputy premier James Merlino.

Somyurek and the Moderates, having been the great superfactioneers, now plotted war against both Labor Unity and the SDA. Somyurek’s expulsion coincided with a wave of discontent from smaller unions aligned with the Industrial Left (at that time a subfaction inside the SL), about a denial of state cabinet positions, in the 2014 post-victory shakeout. Sources close to Somyurek saying that the Financial Services Union, aligned to the IL, first proposed a revival of the failed 2008-9 deal that had preceded the Stability Pact.

Other potential allies appeared in 2016: Brunswick MLA, and SL member, Jane Garrett, tried and failed to find a new seat for 2018, as she faced Green annihilation. In June 2016, as a minister, she “bizarrely” backed the CFA against the firefighters union, and resigned from state cabinet, mid-federal election. Doubtless the stand was a matter of principle, but it also had the useful effect of positioning Garrett as a champion of suburban values against perception of inner-city militant unionists. In November 2017 she was blocked by Kim Carr for upper-house preselection — and praised by Somyurek as a “once in a generation politician” that Labor could not afford to lose. Relations between Carr and the CFMEU/RTBU/Slater and Gordon personal network had deteriorated to the point where the cross-party deal became possible again.

Things happened fast. In September 2016, Stephen Conroy resigned abruptly as senator, notifying his faction co-leader Bill Shorten by text message while the latter was overseas. Conroy was replaced by Kimberley Kitching, a scandal-ridden Shorten confidante, tied to the Health Services Union (HSU).

The HSU is now mentioned as a partner in the new Centre Unity-Industrial Left alliance. In December, Shorten (and Kitching’s husband, Labor blowfly Andrew Landeryou) met with Somyurek, and CU-aligned plumbers’ union head Earl Setches, to discuss the CU-IL deal. Kitching last Friday was out of the stalls tweeting the praises of Jane Garrett, when the latter made her cunning/wacky/wtf non-denial of rumours about running for lord mayor of Melbourne, on ABC radio.

The meeting marked a new high point for Somyurek, a Victorian suburban ethnic branch retail numbers bloke, who has parlayed himself into the position of a national faction leader, or the appearance thereof. Socialist Left insiders have all dismissed the threat, saying that the SDA and the NUW would never join up — and the new Centre Unity faction would tear itself apart in six months if they did.

There is a mild fear among some of what would happen if he pulled it off. “They wouldn’t stick to the ban on challenging sitting members,” one SL source said. “They wouldn’t be able to help themselves. There’s no way this gang would hold together till ’21 [the next Victorian state preselection]. They’d go for Calwell, Jagajaga, Scullin, the new seat out around Sunbury [all in Melbourne’s north], Bruce [in the South-East] and god knows.”

A more realistic fear is that they will manage to increase their strength from the current estimate of around 33% (of the 100 seat POCS, which hands out seat candidacies) into the 40s, or create loose relationships with the SDA or NUW, with no predictability. That would leave Labor with two stability pacts and therefore none, both tying radical left and conservative right unions to each other. “For the past three years, the stability pact has meant that the Opposition is pretty much run out of the Chairman’s lounge at Canberra airport,” said one supporter. “I can see the objections. But I’ve never seen a deal which had less content to it than this, except for personalities.”

God, is this the Australian dream? Does the improbable journey of Adem Somyurek stand for all of us? One day you’re a public policy wonk in a white David Jones shirt, and the next you’re dictating terms to the next prime minister? Simply by saying you want to? “How did Adem Somyurek get a faction?” one Victorian Trade Hall veteran snorted with laughter down the phone. “Come on! How did Theo Theophanous?! You just stick up your hand!”

Ahhhhh, back through the long Dragon Boat journey, to the Pledge deal of the 1990s, the re-admission of the SDA in 1985, to the “split” itself in the 1950s. Seven biblical years after the Faulkner-Carr report, and a full half-century after the formation of the Socialist Left, long after the Cold War gave the divisions real meaning, Labor has made little progress in creating a genuine citizens party, for a post-manufacturing Australia. The barons come, the barons go. The Right’s Dragon Boat paddles on forever.

Next in the series …

Feel the electricity, Bill: Shorten’s dicey dealings with the new warlords