Labor in a quandary over party boss’ return from maternity leave

Victorian Labor is split over the prospect of its party boss returning from maternity leave because of her association with former powerbroker Adem Somyurek and her relationship with a Nationals staffer.

Clare Burns, a former state candidate and union organiser, moved to Canberra in March last year – months before Mr Somyurek’s downfall – to live with her partner, a staffer for David Littleproud, the deputy leader of the federal Nationals.

She then took maternity leave and has recently informed the party’s governance committee that she intends to return to her role as state secretary in September.

Premier Daniel Andrews with Clare Burns in 2017 when she lost in the Northcote by-election.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Her potential comeback has prompted debate among cabinet ministers, unionists and party officials about whether it is appropriate for her to resume her job, given she was supported into the role by Mr Somyurek when he dominated party affairs. The former minister, who is suing The Age for defamation over stories alleging he was a branch stacker, claimed in Parliament in December that he “insisted on” Ms Burns becoming state secretary. There is no suggestion that Ms Burns had any involvement in Mr Somyurek’s branch stacking.

Responding to the concerns of Labor figures, Ms Burns told The Age it was “amazing” she was being undermined while on maternity leave. “It just astounds me that in 2021, people in a progressive political party are willing to judge a woman chiefly on the men she is associated with,” she said.

“Anyone who gets anywhere in the party has a faction. I was in the faction of Adem Somyurek, and he supported me in my elevation … But if he was looking for a ‘yes’ woman, he didn’t get it, and because of that our relationship was very strained. I pushed back on him over some very significant issues of party administration early on and that caused me a lot of enduring grief.”

Adem Somyurek in Parliament in December.Credit:Jason South

Ms Burns’ comments highlight the quandary for sections of the party who might open themselves up to accusations of sexism by opposing her return, despite their grievances being driven chiefly by political imperatives.

Her supporters believe she is entitled to reclaim her role after giving birth. But MPs from across the factional divide argue a change of leadership could disrupt the party’s planning for the next state and federal elections, which is well advanced and being led by acting secretary Chris Ford.

Five state Labor politicians told The Age Ms Burns’ association with Mr Somyurek meant she would not be supported by the majority of the party. Some said her performance as state secretary, including her implementation of new state donations laws, was substandard. The complex donations laws have been a problem for numerous Labor state secretaries and have caused lingering confusion about how MPs’ campaigns will be funded.

Two members of the administrative committee that oversaw the party when Ms Burns was secretary said she initially did not disclose to the committee her relationship with a federal Nationals adviser. They said the relationship could pose a conflict of interest if she was handling preference negotiations that affected Nationals candidates – for example, in contests between the Nationals and an independent where Labor preferences could decide the result.

Ms Burns, whose loss to Lidia Thorpe in the byelection for the seat of Northcote in 2017 ended Labor’s 90-year hold on the electorate, said conflicts were common in organisations and could be handled through regular conflict management processes.

One MP said acting secretary Mr Ford had spent the past year building relationships with cabinet ministers and the Premier’s office while setting up campaign infrastructure to fight the federal ballot, which could be called as soon as September. The state secretary of the party acts as campaign director during elections.

“We’ve been impressed with him and what we need is continuity. To change course now would be silly,” the MP said.

The MP acknowledged blocking a woman returning from maternity leave would not align with the party’s progressive views on increasing female workforce participation, but said this was an exceptional case.

Darren Cheeseman, the MP for South Barwon and a member of the Socialist Left faction, backed Mr Ford, saying there was a strong relationship between head office and MPs. “This relationship is what makes up the most formidable political outfit in the country,” he said.

South Barwon MP Darren Cheeseman.Credit:Paul Rovere

The disagreement is the latest proxy battle in the war for control of the state branch, which was dissolved in the wake of Mr Somyurek leaving the party last year. Some of the unions and factional bosses fighting the Labor Party in an ongoing court case – including the Australian Workers’ Union and officials aligned with former leader Bill Shorten – favour Ms Burns returning.

The forces that have benefited from the power vacuum created by Mr Somyurek – including the Socialist Left, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association union and those aligned with the party’s deputy federal leader Richard Marles – are not in favour.

The stoush is set to reignite a simmering argument about affirmative action in the party, particularly if factions attempt to install Mr Ford in place of Ms Burns.

Clare Burns (right) with Lidia Thorpe, who won the seat of Northcote in 2017.Credit:Darrian Traynor

The outcome of the court case, expected in coming months, could blow up the power-sharing structure recently struck by a majority of factions and unions in the party, which would make it more difficult for Ms Burns’ opponents to block her return.

There is no appetite among the party’s governance committee to sack Ms Burns, and some members of the five-person committee support her return.

If she resumes her role, there is a chance she could run the party’s election campaigns alongside Mr Ford, who would take up a role referred to as “executive officer” that was created by the national executive when it intervened in the state branch.

Another MP said Ms Burns had not left a good impression on the state caucus due to her handling of the party’s implementation of reforms to donations laws that capped donation amounts.

Ms Burns attended an MPs’ retreat in March last year and addressed MPs’ questions about how their campaigns would be funded.

“There was a lot of hostility,” the MP said.

“Her return will not be a unifying event given all the background. Adem went around to everyone who’d listen saying she was his person. He didn’t mince his words in saying he felt like he controlled her.”

Victorian Labor and Premier Daniel Andrews’ office declined to comment.

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