Andrews used to talk about integrity and mean it. Now his words ring hollow

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Premier Daniel Andrews has a peculiar tendency to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing within his party’s ranks. Peculiar and potentially damaging because his old schtick about taking responsibility for what happens on his watch is sounding like so much hollow nonsense.

The assertions once had meaning when they were followed by action – perhaps via a forced resignation or the instilling of cultural change where needed.

But Andrews’ previous words about taking responsibility are rendered invalid by his increasingly contemptuous responses when misconduct or transgressions are discovered either within the Victorian Labor Party, of which he is leader, or within Labor’s parliamentary offices.

Take, for example, the disturbing allegations about Labor Party branch-stacking at Lalor South, the electoral branch of Energy Minister Lily D’Ambrosio, who happens to be a factional ally of Andrews.

Dead men were repeatedly signed up as Labor members at the branch, long after their families had laid them to rest. There are claims of cash payments for 100 per cent of the branch’s memberships, and concessional rates for almost nine out of 10 signed members.

These are historical allegations, to be sure, predating the intervention by Labor’s federal executive in June 2020. This was an intervention instigated by Andrews, to his credit, after The Age and 60 Minutes revealed “industrial-scale” branch-stacking within Labor’s so-called Mods faction.

Adem Somyurek was barred from the Labor Party.Credit: Paul Jeffers

Four ministers lost their jobs back then, including Adem Somyurek, who was barred from the party but continues to snipe from the sidelines. A subsequent audit of Labor memberships by administrators Steve Bracks and Jenny Macklin made 37 recommendations for structural change.

The Age/60 Minutes allegations ended up with the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, which, in conjunction with State Ombudsman Deborah Glass, investigated the use of taxpayer-funded resources for party-related activities and branch-stacking.

And, again to the premier’s credit, when IBAC’s Operation Watts report was tabled a year ago, Andrews publicly apologised and promised to implement all 21 recommendations.

Separately, though, the Bracks-Macklin report also found the scale of branch-stacking had “brazenly increased” in recent years. Some of the key traits were cash payments for memberships, inordinate numbers of memberships on concessional rates, bulk renewals, bogus addresses, and individuals not knowing they had been signed up as members.

When it comes to what allegedly occurred in Lily D’Ambrosio’s branch, you can tick all those boxes plus the addition of dead people to the membership lists.

So why is there no contrition from Andrews this time around, no admission that branch-stacking stinks? Who’s accountable? Not Andrews, apparently, and he certainly doesn’t believe D’Ambrosio, one of his close allies, should be dumped or even stood aside, as Opposition Leader John Pesutto has suggested.

No. It’s a year beyond apologies, and Andrews now projects a decidedly belligerent attitude. It is a stance infected by hubris, one that does not proffer regrets or take criticism kindly. He claims, bizarrely, “there’s no allegation been made”, and that branch-stacking is a matter for Labor’s state executive and integrity agencies. At which point, voters would rightly say we’ve been here before.

Former IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich.Credit: Jason South

Former IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich is all too aware of Andrews’ brand of belligerence. In April, when IBAC published its findings about a 2018 pre-election grant made by the government to the Health Services Union, Andrews arrantly dismissed IBAC’s Operation Daintree report as nothing more than “educational” and claimed IBAC had not made any findings.

Redlich says Andrews’ response was “quite disingenuous”, noting the report is chock-full of findings about misconduct in public office but that it is of a form that would not sustain a criminal charge in court.

In IBAC’s words: “[B]oth Operation Watts and Operation Daintree point to the need for non-criminal misconduct to be addressed, where it offends community expectations of public officials and diminishes confidence in the institutions of government.”

Soft corruption is something Andrews obviously does not want to tackle. That was apparent in the recent parliamentary committee hearing when four MPs acting as Andrews’ minions deliberately quashed Redlich’s opportunity to discuss his half-dozen proposals for changes that would make the anti-corruption commission more effective.

Others are up for change. On Wednesday, every opposition and crossbench MP in the state’s upper house voted in favour of a bill to make IBAC reports more easily published. Labor MPs voted against it.

Andrews used to talk about integrity and mean it. He did so in 2020 when the Somyurek allegations emerged. But when separate, albeit serious, allegations waft around an ally from his own faction, there is deflection and denial.

When can Victorians expect a leader of calibre, one who does something to rectify the branch-stacking and influence-peddling that has become synonymous with the Labor Party?

At what point does Premier Daniel Andrews truly demonstrate that he is accountable or the buck stops with him?

Andrews seems to believe critics can all be brushed aside, that if you say “there’s nothing to see here” often enough, then there will be nothing to see. But it’s a magician’s trick and, as Wednesday’s polling demonstrates, Victorians are starting to recognise the deception.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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