By Nick McKenzie and Joel Tozer
Factional players: Former electorate officer Paul Sukkar (left), his older brother, federal minister Michael Sukkar, and their factional ally and Liberal elder Kevin Andrews.Credit:
Federal minister Michael Sukkar had intimate knowledge of a long-running scheme in which his best friend, younger brother and factional supporters were paid by taxpayers for political work that boosted the power of Mr Sukkar’s faction.
Mr Sukkar’s leaked personal correspondence, along with the testimony of two confidential sources, casts fresh light on his knowledge of the scheme, first revealed by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes last year.
The documents undermine the Assistant Treasurer’s statements at the time that he knew nothing about the rorting of taxpayer funds in his office, and that of veteran Victorian MP Kevin Andrews. He blamed the improper actions on a relatively junior political staffer, Josh Bonney.
In one email sent to Mr Sukkar, a taxpayer-funded electorate office worker was described as spending “5 days [a week] – databasing of new members … facilitating factional operations” among other activities.
The documents also reveal the viciousness of politics in Liberal factions, with Mr Sukkar privately savaging Senator Jane Hume, the Minister for Women’s Economic Security, after she made an emotional Facebook statement three years ago about the difficulty of juggling politics and parenthood.
The documents again focus attention on the lack of a federal anti-corruption commission that could scrutinise allegations of impropriety against federal MPs. In Victoria and NSW, state-based anti-corruption bodies are now involved in investigating alleged wrongdoing and misuse of public funds by state politicians.
A government-commissioned Finance Department investigation into allegations against Mr Sukkar found insufficient evidence to implicate him, but failed to interview at least three key witnesses. The department resisted a 12-month effort under freedom of information laws to release its report. It noted in its reasons for refusal that Mr Sukkar made “strong representations” to block the release.
The scandal relates to an arrangement in 2017 and 2018 that involved diverting taxpayer-funded electorate office budgets towards building the factional power that benefited Mr Sukkar, a former tax lawyer who has been the member for the Victorian seat of Deakin since 2013.
Emails and text messages sent to Mr Sukkar by Liberal Party figures involved in the alleged rorting, as well as the fact two of those placed on the federal government payroll in 2017 were his younger brother, Paul Sukkar, and his best friend, Matt Pham, reveal Mr Sukkar’s knowledge in the scheme to use taxpayer-funded electorate officers as party political workers.
It may be a breach of federal laws or parliamentary rules for an electorate officer to work for the benefit of other MPs or engage in factional party activity.
The scheme began in mid-2017 with the employment of Paul Sukkar as an electorate officer in Kevin Andrews’ office. Michael Sukkar knew of the arrangement and how it was managed by two factional allies, including one of Michael Sukkar’s staffers, according to the leaked material and source briefings.
Two sources with detailed knowledge of Paul Sukkar’s activities, who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions, said he worked as a membership recruiter for Michael Sukkar, with one source saying his employment in Mr Andrews’ office was grossly improper.
The second source said the scheme was initially engineered because too many questions would be asked if Paul Sukkar was placed directly in the office of his older brother, and because Mr Andrews could be pressured to take on taxpayer-funded staff to do the work of Michael Sukkar’s faction.
Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Paul Sukkar was employed for stints during the 2017-18 financial year in Mr Andrews’ office, variously receiving a taxpayer salary and payment from the Liberal Party campaign fund. His duties, according to a February 2018 email sent to Michael Sukkar, included “recruitment for Menzies” (Mr Andrews’ east-suburban seat) and “recruitment outside Menzies”.
Between mid-2017 and mid-2018, at least five other factional operatives were given taxpayer-funded jobs in either Mr Andrews’ office or that of Mr Sukkar. They included Jessy Jayakumaran, Nigel Lau and Stephanie Bastiaan. All five were directed to engage in at least some factional work, according to documents and source testimony.
For instance, a text message that circulated among the Sukkar faction in January 2018 states that one of Mr Andrews’ electorate officers had been directed to work on the election of a conservative figure in the 2018 Young Liberals election.
“I’ve got [Andrews’ electorate officer] to work on [Young Liberals election] email drafts tomorrow in Kevin’s office,” the message said.
“Awesome … let’s get you elected,” another factional figure replied.
Among the leaked documents are three emails from Paul Sukkar to Michael Sukkar in the first six months of 2018, when the Sukkar-led conservative Liberal faction was seeking to dominate the party’s Victorian wing.
The emails contain directions to a taxpayer-funded staffer working for Mr Andrews, Ms Jayakumaran, to administer the mass recruitment of new members to Mr Sukkar’s factional block of Liberal members. The influx of members helped the Sukkar faction win key party positions in 2018 and wield more power over the Liberals’ state council and parliamentary preselections.
For instance, on March 2, 2018, Michael Sukkar was informed via email by his brother that he had sent Ms Jayakumaran a list of new party members she was told to “please add … to the [membership] database”. Michael Sukkar responded to his brother: “well done!”
The evidence also contains indications that Paul Sukkar was branch stacking, with directives to add new members to the Liberal Party in a manner that would lessen scrutiny of their bona fides by party officials from the Liberal state council, who at the time were wary of suspected factional branch stacking.
“These 4 applications won’t be submitted until after state council due to being former Family First candidates,” Paul Sukkar emailed his brother and Ms Jayakumaran on April 4, 2018.
Another email sent to Michael Sukkar on February 27, 2018, by one of his factional operatives suggests Ms Jayakumaran and other employees of Mr Andrews’ electorate office may have been in breach of laws that prevent electorate officers being paid to recruit members for a political faction.
The email stated Ms Jayakumaran was spending “5 days [a week] – databasing of new members … facilitating factional operations … turning out numbers [party members] and facilitating proxies for state council”. It also referred to another electorate officer “recruiting” factionally aligned members, as well as running a conservative political blog.
Mr Sukkar responded to this February 27 email by writing: “Good Summary. My only comment is that [one of the electorate officers in Mr Andrews’ office] is very valuable to our broader movement through [a conservative blog], so let’s not dissuade her from the good work she’s doing through that medium.”
Two sources with a direct role in interacting with Mr Andrews’ electorate officers said those installed by Mr Sukkar and his office might have done some electorate office work, but were given the taxpayer-funded jobs primarily to engage in factional activities.
Another staffer, Cameron Manassa, was also recruited to the scheme but complained he was being pressured by one of Mr Sukkar’s factional operatives, electorate officer Mr Bonney, to do factional work on taxpayer time.
Mr Sukkar has previously blamed his former staffer Mr Bonney for getting the electorate officers to rort their taxpayer-funded jobs.
But this is undermined by other evidence. For instance, the metadata of a November 2017 document setting out how Mr Manassa would engage in factional work while on taxpayer time in Mr Andrews’ office was created in Mr Sukkar’s electorate office. The document is attached to an email from a factional operative that states Mr Sukkar had approved Mr Manassa’s work plan: “[Michael] Sukkar has signed off on the attached … I will send it to Kevin [Andrews] this week.”
Mr Sukkar has declined multiple requests to be interviewed about the alleged rorting or his role, if any, in getting his best friend from high school, Mr Pham – a designer with a full-time job in private business – to create and print political smear pamphlets in February 2017.
The smear pamphlets, which were not publicly funded, were to be distributed anonymously to help Sukkar faction operative Ms Bastiaan win the conservative vote in a preselection battle for a seat in State Parliament. They depicted Ms Bastiaan as a conservative crusader pitched against overly soft Liberals.
Mr Sukkar has previously confirmed that Mr Pham was paid to do casual design work via Mr Sukkar’s electorate office budget from 2014 to 2018, but has denied any impropriety or knowledge of the smear pamphlet.
But The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald understand Mr Sukkar helped to arrange for the production of the Bastiaan pamphlet.
A month after it was produced, in March 2017, Mr Sukkar’s office sent Mr Pham an email with another design request. It stated: “Hey Matt, more work for you mate.”
Leaked communications also reveal how Mr Sukkar privately criticised Senator Hume in May 2018 after she made an emotional statement about the difficulty of juggling politics and motherhood.
“While I am a willing volunteer to this life on the front line, my kids are conscripts,” Ms Hume wrote in a Facebook post. “There is no such thing as superwoman. We can’t do it all. Something’s got to give.”
Mr Sukkar shared the post with his factional allies in a closed chat room, describing it as “indulgent and quite frankly bizarre”.
“I was waiting for her retirement from politics but sadly it wasn’t there!” Mr Sukkar told his factional allies, who responded “ha ha” and that Ms Hume was “mad and unhinged”.
The re-emergence of the Sukkar scandal increases pressure on the Morrison government over its proposed federal anti-corruption commission, which in its current form would lack the power to publicly scrutinise the allegations against Mr Sukkar and the Assistant Treasurer’s attempts to blame the rorting of taxpayer-funded jobs on a former staffer.
Former federal court judge Michael Barker, QC, said the Prime Minister’s proposed corruption agency was designed to protect politicians from public scrutiny, including by preventing it from holding public hearings into political misconduct.
“It’s just limited in every respect,” Mr Barker said.
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Labor’s shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus both attacked the Morrison government’s attempt to suppress the Sukkar scandal and introduce a weak federal corruption commission.
Mr Turnbull said: “When there are real concerns about misconduct, corruption, improper use of government funds, then it should be in public view.”
Mr Turnbull criticised last year’s decision by the Coalition to refer the August 2020 allegations about Mr Sukkar’s electorate office job rorting to the Finance Department, given it lacked investigate powers and was done in secret. A year-long freedom of information battle by this masthead and 60 Minutes to obtain the Finance Department’s investigation was blocked, partly after Mr Sukkar made “strong representations” to prevent its public release.
The handling by the Morrison government of the Sukkar scandal is in contrast to Labor’s ongoing public excoriation before Victoria’s anti-corruption commission for alleged rorting of taxpayer-funded electorate officer jobs.
The Somyurek scandal being probed by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission has so far led to the resignation of four Andrews government ministers and federal MP Anthony Byrne, who recently stepped down as deputy chair of a parliamentary committee.
But IBAC or its NSW equivalent, the Independent Commission Against Corruption – which last week finished its public hearings into ex-NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian – has been unable to examine the Sukkar scandal because there is no link to state government corruption.
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