Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s power base in Victorian Labor relies on alliances and and membership numbers. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
One of Bill Shorten’s closest allies and friends had his own ALP membership paid by an anonymous gift card, as the fallout of the branch stacking scandal engulfing the Victorian ALP widens.
Plumbers’ union federal and state secretary Earl Setches, a key factional lieutenant of Shorten, had his own membership paid for by an Australia Post Gift Card in both 2013 and 2014.
A Fairfax investigation has discovered that nearly 1000 ALP memberships and renewals have been paid for by anonymous gift cards over the past four years by prominent suburban Labor warlords. The scam is centred on Setches’ plumbers union and factional powerbroker David Asmar – two factional players rusted on to Shorten’s political machine.
Factional allies: Bill Shorten and Senator Stephen Conroy. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
The scandal has also widened with new evidence of the cards being used to pay for the party memberships of about 250 western suburban members – many with Turkish names – who are linked to notorious branch stacker Hakki Suleyman.
Mr Shorten has called for tough action against branch stackers, but many of those involved in the scam are the Opposition Leader’s close political allies. Shorten backers were also at the forefront of the move last week to avert a truly independent probe of the membership rorts.
The gift cards were used as part of an elaborate scam to build and maintain the numbers which underpin the power base of Mr Shorten and federal frontbencher Stephen Conroy. If Shorten is to face a leadership spill these members, controlled by the “warlords”, will each have a vote, which they will presumably cast for him.
Bill Shorten has warned that branch stackers face expulsion from the ALP but critics are calling for an independent inquiry. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Mr Asmar, who is renowned in the party for his Lebanese “stacks”, and for being a close ally to the Plumbers Union. Together they appear to be behind the purchase of more than 600 of the Labor memberships.
Mr Asmar was called as a witness to the royal commission into union corruption on Thursday, but he will not appear as he is in Lebanon. The royal commission said it was “considering its position” regarding his absence.
Mr Asmar has been working in the electoral office of senator Stephen Conroy, who with Shorten runs the dominant “ShortCon” faction of Victorian Labor. His wife, Diana Asmar, is secretary of the troubled Health Services Union No. 1 branch.
Mr Suleyman is a key figure in Shorten’s dominant right wing faction and played an important role in the Opposition Leader’s preselection for the seat of Maribyrnong in 2006.
He was a central figure in the saga that led to the sacking of the Brimbank council in 2009 after which he was dismissed from the electoral office of then state planning minister Justin Madden.
Like Mr Asmar he was later employed in Senator Conroy’s electoral office.
The Fairfax Media investigation has uncovered more detail on the massive scam including:
- Almost 100 memberships were paid for from one computer. The batch included Mr Asmar’s own membership;
- Mr Setches’ membership was one of 46 paid for using these cards between 10.38pm and 1.11am on the night of May 28, 2014, at intervals of about one every five minutes;
- Four separate types of anonymous cards have been used, including the Australia Post Load & Go Travel card, Australia Post Gift Card and VISA Debit card;
- The cards were used to pay for nearly 1000 Labor memberships or renewals since 2011 at a cost of about $30,000 to whoever paid the bills;
- More than 700 of those memberships and renewals appear linked to Mr Asmar and the Plumbers Union.
Under party rules not paying for your own membership should lead to suspension or expulsion from Labor.
Last week Mr Shorten wrote to the Victorian ALP saying: “Those who contravene the integrity of our membership rules by branch stacking must be made to feel the full force of the disciplinary measures available to the party … including expulsion.”
However, rather than an independent inquiry, the party’s powerful administrative committee last week appointed Shorten-aligned numbers man Garth Head to co-head the probe. The meeting also appointed branch stacker Mr Suleyman to the committee that oversees party membership.
The revelations come as furious party elders step up their demand for a truly independent investigation of the rorts.
For factional warlords, the “stacks” represent numbers and power within Labor – numbers to be traded in factional and sub-factional deals and wielded in policy and preselection battles.
Some of the cards used by the branch stackers are, in effect, disposable debit, credit or gift cards that do not show who the cardholder is or who paid for them.
The difficulty in tracing who paid for them makes them ideal for branch stacking.
Race Mathews, a former state and federal MP, has criticised the decision to appoint Labor Right figure Mr Head and the Left’s Liz Beattie to investigate the use of the pre-paid gift cards. He wants an independent inquiry.
Jieh-Yung Lo, co-founder of group Poliversity, which wants to encourage cultural diversity within the ALP, also called for an independent investigation.
“We are concerned that branch-stacking activities only entrench the exploitation of members from multicultural backgrounds and undermines trust,” he said.