The release of the Ombudsman’s report in to the politics of Brimbank City Council has created something of a problem for the Brumby Labor government.
The Ombudsman’s office inquired in to the operation of Brimbank council following the Kororoit by-election.
It was in relation to the Labor pre-selection for this seat that a particularly nasty round of local political manoeuvring occurred when former Brimbank mayor, Natalie Suleyman, failed in her bid to become the endorsed Labor candidate.
As the report outlines, members of the council sought to exact revenge over those identified as having undermined Ms Suleyman’s bid to get in to state politics.
Some of this took the form of threatening the rental agreements of some soccer clubs in the western suburbs.
It was this behaviour that led to expressions of outrage by local member for Keilor, George Seitz in the parliament and this, in turn, precipitated the Ombudsman’s inquiry.
The release of the report in early May was treated as highly newsworthy when it was revealed that, not only were there instances of councillors using their position to broker on sport clubs leases but there were many other transgressions as well.
These included abuse of council provided mobile phones, abuse of council lap top computers (complete with obligatory outrage about downloaded pornography), and a minor scandal about public toilet construction.
Also in the mix were allegations of political behaviour that clearly offended the clean political world of the Ombudsman including the propensity for some councillors to caucus before meetings and the usual and seemingly sinister phenomenon of ‘ethnic branch stacking’.
Followers of local government politics would probably not be too surprised by some of the things revealed in the Brimbank report, including the notion that some extraneous people (in this case, husbands, fathers and their associates) exert their influence over local politics via their wives and/or daughters who sit on council.
The political significance of the report, however, lies in its link to the murky world of internal Labor politics at the very local level.
Journalists seized on the fact that the politics of Brimbank are, in fact, the internal politics of the right wing faction of the Victorian Labor party – the very faction, indeed, with which other luminaries such as the premier himself are aligned.
Indeed, the premier’s sensitivity to this matter was revealed in his government’s reaction to the report.
In promising to legislate according to the recommendations of the report, the Brumby government will, amongst other things, render unemployed a number of councillors across the state and from all of the political parties who are currently working as staff members for various state MPs.
One thing the government didn’t do (although premier Brumby indicated that he considered it) was to sack the current Brimbank Council.
The reason for this, of course, is that Brimbank has what is effectively a new council thanks to the round of council elections held in 2008.
Of the people named in the Brimbank report, only three are still on council and of these most were not identified as the main causes of concern.
The electoral system, then, has gone some way to resolving the matter of exacting responsibility for the alleged mis-performance of the council.
The president of the Legislative Council, meanwhile, is on the case of Mr Hakki Suleyman, the father of Natalie Suleyman, who was also mentioned in the report.
This just leaves the matter of three state Labor MPs also mentioned in the report including MLAs Telmo Linguilla and George Seitz, and MLC Theo Theophanous.
Here an interesting set of considerations arise. Messers Seitz and Theophanous have long been considered powerful figures in the operation of the Labor party at the local level.
They have also tended to figure prominently in stories that have caused the state government embarrassment.
They have attracted press attention because of their factional links, and some journalists have argued that the reason why the premier appears loath to do anything about them is because they have factional protection.
There are interesting signs that the Labor party is finally running out of patience with Seitz and Theophanous in particular.
The latest reports are that the party’s National Executive is contemplating intervention on the question of whether or not Seitz and Theophanous should remain within the party.
Expulsion from the party would, of course, probably be the end of their parliamentary careers.
Both Seitz and Theophanous are in the parliament because the Labor party puts them there.
Were the party to remove their endorsement it would be unlikely in the extreme that they would be elected as independents.
By focusing on the hapless Ms Suleyman, ‘ethnic branch stacking’, internet pornography, soccer club leases and the like, the press have actually missed the critical political point of the Brimbank revelations.
The real story lies in the role of Seitz and the Theophanous family in the political affairs of the Labor party, and why it is that they have not been punished by the Victorian ALP the way those councillors who also work for MPs are to be when the new laws about councillor activity are passed.
Hakki Suleyman is clearly being pursued by MLC Bob Smith, but why is it apparently being left to the National Executive, rather than the Victorian branch of the ALP, to deal with Seitz and Theophanous?
The Brumby government faces the difficult task of winning another term in the 2010 election – a poll that may well be held in the midst of serious economic down-turn.
There is a danger of the government being seen to be affected by hubris if the parliamentary-based culprits outlined in the Brimbank report avoid sanction.
One wonders how many more times the premier will allow Mr Seitz and Mr Theophanous to seriously embarrass his government before he gets his party to use the power that it does have to do something about them.
Dr Economou is a senior lecturer in Politics at Monash University.