Fifield did not tell Turnbull about AFP investigation into NBN leaked docs

Australian Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has said that while he was aware of the investigation of leaked NBN documents by the Federal Police, he did not tell other ministers or his prime minister.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor on

Mitch Fifield has said he was aware of the investigation by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) into documents leaked from the company responsible for deploying the National Broadband Network (NBN) across Australia, but kept knowledge of the investigation to himself, the communications minister said in a statement released on Saturday.

In response to Labor concerns about who in the government knew about the investigation that culminated in the raids on the office of Senator Stephen Conroy and the homes of two Labor staffers on Thursday night, Fifield said he did not tell other ministers or Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

"Last year, there were leaks of commercially sensitive information from NBN. The senior management of NBN initiated an internal review, which identified matters of concern," Fifeld said. "The referral to the AFP was made by the NBN senior management. I did not instruct nor request them to do so.

"As an AFP investigation was under way, I did not advise other ministers or the prime minister of this matter.

"I have had no interaction with the AFP during their investigation. Nor did I have any knowledge of, nor involvement in, matters that occurred this week, as was confirmed by the AFP commissioner yesterday."

Labor Senator Penny Wong, however, has said the claim that Fifield knew but did not tell the prime minister's office "doesn't pass the pub test", and called for the government to come clean after Turnbull backed Fifield's statement.

"It is inconceivable that Mitch Fifield and his office, who knew about these leaks and knew about the likelihood or the reality of an AFP investigation, did not tell someone in the prime minister's office," Wong said on Saturday.

Late Friday, it was revealed that an NBN employee who took dozens of photos of secret documents while assisting the AFP in the raids had been forced to delete them. The staff member, who was enlisted by the AFP as a "special constable" to help identify allegedly leaked documents, took 32 photos of confidential items.

It is understood that the AFP instructed the staffer to take the photos of the documents -- now sealed under a claim of parliamentary privilege -- to send to other NBN employees.

In a letter to the AFP seen by AAP, Labor's lawyer Paul Galbally said he had been advised that the photos of the documents had been disseminated.

"This act was wrong and, amongst other things, clearly had the potential to undermine my clients' claim for privilege," the letter said.

Galbally has been advised that the photos were downloaded onto a USB and handed to the Senate clerk, who also holds the sealed documents.

The photos have been deleted and cannot be retrieved, the letter said.

The documents seized from the office of Conroy and the home of a staffer cannot be analysed by police until the Senate decides whether parliamentary privilege does apply.

The Senate won't sit until after the July 2 election.

In the letter, Galbally asked AFP Commander Paul Osborne for an explanation as to why the photos were sent out by the staff member when a "clear claim for privilege had been made and acknowledged by officers present". He also wants to know who authorised the staffer to take such action.

In a statement on Friday, NBN said it had "followed and complied with instructions from the AFP at all times".

AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin earlier defended the AFP's independence amid Labor claims the Turnbull government played a part in the "extraordinary and unprecedented" raids during an election campaign.

"There has been no influence on the AFP in the conduct of this investigation," Colvin said.

The government was not made aware of the raids until after they had commenced, he said, with the timing completely decided by the AFP.

"Investigators follow the evidence," he added. "The offending has been ongoing throughout the conduct of this investigation."

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus yesterday said the seized documents were protected by parliamentary privilege because former Communications Minister Senator Conroy was participating in a Senate inquiry into the mismanagement of the NBN.

There is speculation that there could be further raids involving media companies that published stories sourced to the leaked documents. The search warrants reportedly made reference to the ABC, The Australian, The Australian Financial Review, Delimiter, and The Sydney Morning Herald.

AFP officers have also interviewed a number of people at NBN headquarters in Sydney.

Dreyfus said the raids have raised questions about the protection of whistleblowers in Australia.

"This search warrant process is directed not merely at opposition frontbenchers and their staff, but directed also at the media. And it raises questions about not only the public's right to know, but the right of the media to publish," the shadow attorney-general said.

"While they're about it, prime minister, ministers, should answer questions as to why this particular set of leaks as distinct from the 20 or so leaks about national security matters, which have not been the subject of any police raids, have not even been the subject of any police investigations in some cases, of why this matter concerning the NBN Co and Mr Turnbull's mismanagement has been given such treatment."

Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare also implied that the government had been involved in NBN referring the matter to the AFP, because the leaks showed that Turnbull's NBN policy had been a failure.

"These leaked documents are very damaging for Malcolm Turnbull, and very embarrassing because they expose his failure as minister, expose his failure in implementing the policy he took to the last election. And what these leaked documents show is they show the delays. They show that in the fibre-to-the-node areas, they're all behind schedule. And they show the cost blowouts," Clare said.

"No wonder NBN Co wants to silence these whistleblowers."

Turnbull hit back, accusing Labor of shamefully attacking the integrity of the AFP.

With AAP

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