ALP's endorsement of domestic violence apologist stacks odds against them in NSW

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ALP Seven Hills candidate Susai Benjamin (Image screenshot susaibenjamin.com.au)

The NSW ALP's endorsement of domestic violence apologist and alleged branch stacker Susai Benjamin as a candidate for the forthcoming State election puts their electoral prospects at risk, writes ALP member Peter Wicks from Wixxyleaks.

IN THE UPCOMING NSW State election, I will not be voting Labor for the first time in my life in any election.

It is not because I’ve switched allegiances, gone insane or hit my head on something hard. It’s also not because I don’t like NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson, I think John is a fine man, a fine leader, and would make an excellent Premier.

Please allow me to explain.

Sydney’s western suburbs are a battleground when it comes to State and Federal elections, with the Liberal Party desperate to take any piece of what has always been Labor heartland. The upcoming NSW State Election will be no different in that regards.

However, where things do differ from the usual battle is that Labor in the endorsement of one of their candidates may have ended up notching up a victory for the other team.

The seat of Seven Hills is traditional Labor heartland and is the neighbouring seat to that of Labor leader John Robertson. Although it is a new seat, it replaces the seat of Toongabbie, which is currently represented by former Premier Nathan Rees who announced earlier this year that he would not be contesting the next election.

The endorsed candidate was recently announced as Susai Benjamin. However it is the manner in which he was endorsed and Mr Benjamin’s public comments on domestic violence that have raised eyebrows on both sides of the political fence. Not only that, there have been questions raised by many regarding the Toongabbie Legal Centre, which is a charity organisation set up by Mr Benjamin ostensibly to provide a free legal service to those in need.

Mr Benjamin is well known in the area amongst Labor Party members.

Apart from running the Legal Centre, it seems he attends virtually any event to hand out flyers for the TLC, whether it is appropriate or not, he is a Labor councillor on Blacktown Shire Council, although his attendance record could be seen as less than desirable. In addition, he is notorious for alleged branch stacking.

Mr Benjamin is also remembered as the man who, with the backing of Federal MP Laurie Ferguson tried to be pre-selected over Nathan Rees for the 2011 NSW election. Although that attempt failed, most are not surprised to find Laurie Ferguson’s name attached to Mr Benjamin again.

(Image via laurieferguson.com.au)

The Daily Mail recently reported that Mr Benjamin was being backed in by 'ALP heavyweights', including Federal MPs Ferguson and Julie Owens, and State MP Lynda Voltz.

Heavyweights? Really?

History has shown us the impact factional heavyweights have had on NSW Labor, with people like Obeid and Tripodi causing the Party immense damage.

Julie Owens has always been one quick to throw support behind Laurie Ferguson, while Lynda Voltz is Laurie's stepdaughter; it should be no surprise that these people are following Laurie's lead with respect to Benjamin.

However it is the apparent support of the NSW Labor Party’s Candidate Review Committee that has taken those familiar with Mr Benjamin by surprise.

More on that later, let’s look at Mr Benjamin's actions and why he needed to be scrutinised for nearly four months by the Review Committee after being the only person to nominate for the seat.

For starters, there are his views on domestic violence that have seen women’s health services, domestic violence support groups and most people who detest this abhorrent and gutless crime up in arms over his attitude.

In an interview in the March 2012 Law Society Journal, Susai Benjamin is quoted as saying;

“Some wives think they can call the police and the police will come and warn their husbands not to be violent, but instead the police when they come arrest and charge them. This leads to a total breakdown of the family relationship.”

Most recognise that the breakdown in family relationship is caused by the violence itself, not by the consequences of any police action. It is also not the fault of wives for calling the police. Calling for police assistance is something that should be encouraged, not discouraged, as Mr Benjamin seems to suggest.

It would seem to be starkly against ALP policy and, indeed, common decency for the Party to endorse a candidate whose publicly and privately stated views on domestic violence appear quite alarming. This is something that the Liberal State Member for Baulkham Hills David Elliott pointed out rather bluntly on the floor of Parliament recently and I commend him for his effort. Both major Party’s need to take a joint stand on this issue.

It should also be noted that domestic violence is not a “cultural issue”, as Mr Benjamin has allegedly claimed in the past. No-one should be given a free-pass for beating his wife black and blue just because he is a member of a particular cultural grouping.

Some have claimed that Mr Benjamin's words have been taken out of context, or that perhaps his wording wasn’t quite right.

If that is the case, then actions speak louder than words and it may be wise to hear from those who saw how he dealt with domestic violence cases first-hand

Michael Vassili, the former lead solicitor for the Toongabbie Legal Centre, has gone on record saying this:

The views expressed by Mr Benjamin in that article are wholly consistent with what I saw. Some have tried to brush it off as badly chosen words, but I don’t believe that for a moment.

For example, I can recall one client of Sri Lankan background presented to the Centre distraught and advising that she had been beaten and abused by her husband. She was out of the house and, as I recall, desperate.

In the middle of the consultation, where I was advising her as to informing the police and seeking the protection of an AVO, Susai interjected saying to the lady words to the effect: “There’s always two sides to the story, I am sure you are to blame as well”.

His solution was “let's get him here and you and he can sort out your differences as you need to just get on with life”. This was in the presence of another lawyer and volunteer students of the centre.

This type of response in domestic violence and family breakdown matters was a common one from Susai.

Mr Benjamin has been endorsed in an area of Sydney that has one of the country’s highest rates of domestic violence.

The Toongabbie Legal Centre, as I mentioned, is a charity service and operates out of a church hall in Toongabbie on Thursday nights and Saturday during the day. There are numerous fundraising activities, such as BBQ’s at Bunnings and there is one huge fundraiser held each year.

Toongabbie Legal Centre fundraiser at Bunnings. (Source: supplied)

The annual fundraiser attracted people in their hundreds and was supported by magistrates, judges, Attorney Generals and politicians from both sides of politics. The event should have raised tens of thousands of dollars alone, and many have questioned where the money has been spent.

Solicitors providing their services do so using their own phones, their own computers, their own stationery and of course volunteer their own time. All of the staff at the centre are volunteers.

The expenditure apparent is the hire of the church hall twice a week — although that may be donated.

Some computer equipment had been donated to the centre by Parramatta Council, however this was not known until a Parramatta councillor mentioned the donation to one of the centres solicitors many months earlier, after raising the question later the equipment had found its way to Mr Benjamin’s residence.

One of the centre's biggest expenses is the printing of flyers and questions have been raised about just how much of the funds raised by the centre is spent via Mr Benjamin’s chosen provider of printing services.

The finances for the Centre are controlled By Susai Benjamin’s wife, Anne, who is also the centre's public officer — something that many would describe as a conflicted arrangement.

Some of those I have spoken to have suggested money raised for the Centre may be going towards paying the membership fees of those Mr Benjamin is alleged to stack the branches with.

One of the Centre's former solicitors, Michael Vassili, said this when I asked him about these allegations:

Anecdotally, I had a number of clients of the Centre tell me that they had been approached to join one of Susai's local branches.

One lady, who I will not identify, was very vulnerable given her legal predicament. She said to me, to the effect: "I did what Susai asked, I joined the Labor Party but he did not get me a result".

I raised that with members of the Management Committee. There were others who made similar claims to having joined the party as a means to obtain assistance for their legal predicament. This made me very uncomfortable.

(Image via cityprosecutor.com.au)

Please be aware, this is not to raise a question mark over the centre itself. I do not wish to detract from the fantastic work that has been done via the Toongabbie Legal Centre, nor do I seek to discredit the solicitors and volunteers that have volunteered their services in the spirit of providing a valuable community service.

Mr Benjamin was also happy to campaign as the endorsed candidate and do press as the candidate long before being endorsed by the Party. However, this has been overlooked by the ALP administration at Sussex Street, setting what may become a nasty precedent.

Also overlooked by Sussex Street is the fact that Mr Benjamin also held a Seven Hills State Electoral Committee campaign fundraiser before being endorsed.

Despite not being a member of the Seven Hills SEC, Mr Benjamin allegedly sent out invites to the fundraising event, confusing those who were on the SEC as they had not been informed of the event, nor had the opportunity to vote on it or give permission for the event to be held in their name.

The motion to hold the event was allegedly put before the SEC three days after invitations and been sent out and guest speakers announced.

All this obviously raises question about Susai Benjamin's suitability as a candidate. The Candidate Review Committee was aware of the above allegations and more, I know this because I had informed Sussex St myself. However, four months after appearing before the Committee, they endorsed him anyway.

Sources have told me it was a decision they made reluctantly. The decision by the Administration Committee to endorse the Review Committee’s outcome was allegedly put to the Admin Committee as part of a package that related to the State Secretary’s ability to override the decisions of the Review Committee or democratically elected candidates.

What is alarming is that I believe the reason the Review Committee reluctantly endorsed Mr Benjamin for Seven Hills is that they did not want him involved in the pre-selection for the neighbouring seat of Prospect, which he is believed to have also been considering standing for and is a far safer Labor seat.

Currently, there is a three-way battle going on in that pre-selection, with controversial ALP powerbroker Joe Tripodi allegedly putting his weight behind two of the candidates. Mr Benjamin’s alleged stacks in that seats branches would have only made that battle uglier.

You know, I thought the backing of Joe Tripodi – who has had a corruption finding against him at ICAC – would have counted against someone in a pre-selection and that Sussex St may have had the guts to put a stop to the Tripodi influence. If these allegations are true, then it would appear not.

I have approached Laurie Ferguson, NSW State Labor Secretary Jamie Clements, and Susai Benjamin for comment.

Mr Ferguson responded by making an interesting point, stating:

'There was a call for a rank and file selection and he was the only candidate, indicating he had overwhelming support.'

As Mr Ferguson should be aware, this is not necessarily the case.

It costs $500 to put in a nomination for pre-selection. As I mentioned before, Mr Benjamin is thought of as a branch stacker locally. What this means is that, with the branches allegedly stacked by Mr Benjamin, someone nominating would be as good as throwing $500 away as they would never have the numbers to beat Mr Benjamin in a pre-selection.

Many complaints have been made by branches in writing and, I am reliably informed, Jamie Clements himself has been made aware of this, but has refused to address the issue or visit the branches.

Nobody nominating is not a sign of overwhelming support, but rather a sign that members are resigned to the knowledge that their voices are being ignored by Sussex St.

NSW ALP state secretary Jamie Clements (Image via Twitter)

Jamie Clements refused to make any public comment other than to say;

The candidate review committee met on the 7th of August 2014 to determine Mr Benjamin's candidacy. Mr Benjamin provided a statement to the committee, which made it clear that his view is that domestic violence is unacceptable under any circumstances. The candidate review committee recommended that Mr Benjamin be endorsed. That recommendation was adopted by the administrative committee on the 8th of August 2014.

This is an election Labor should be winning by a landslide.

ICAC has been the gift that keeps on giving, with a constant flow of Liberals forced to resign from their Party or Parliament.

By allowing decisions like this to go ahead, the ALP appear to be risking the entire election.

What is the point of a Candidate Review Committee if public comments, breaking party rules, and allegations like these are not seen as issues that could make the Party look bad?

There are other electorates that have not had pre-selections and a candidate has been installed, so let’s not hear the same old democratic process spin. That line only seems only relevant when it suits certain people.

If I was John Robertson, I would be absolutely livid my campaign was being damaged by these types of decisions and inaction by those elected to party positions on the promise of reform.

There are those who will seek to have me expelled from the Party for writing this, as they will allege that it brings the Party into disrepute. It is my view however that it is the actions of some and inaction of others that brings the Party into disrepute — not those who seek to protect the Party by attempting to have these issues addressed.

If those in charge in Sussex St do not have the guts to address these issues, than maybe it’s about time they either found some courage or found a new role.

Members pay for – and deserve – better.

At time of publication, Mr Benjamin had failed to respond.

Peter Wicks is an ALP member and a former NSW Labor Party State candidate. You can follow Peter on Twitter @madwixxy.

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