Labor questions prime minister's involvement in AFP raids over NBN leaks

Mark Dreyfus and Jason Clare have questioned whether the prime minister, his ministers, or their staff were involved in NBN's referral to the AFP to investigate a series of leaks.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Labor is questioning whether Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull or any Coalition ministers were involved in the National Broadband Network (NBN) company referring the investigation of leaked confidential Commonwealth documents to the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

During a joint press conference between Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare in Sydney on Friday morning, the two queried whether the raids had been an effort by the government to cover up a failed NBN policy.

"There's a more serious matter underlying this. Not only has this raid -- both raids -- occurred during an election campaign, they are in response to, as we learned again from Commissioner Colvin this morning, an investigation commenced at the behest of a government agency: NBN Co," Dreyfus said.

"What we need to know is what did the prime minister, or his ministers, or their staff have to do with the commencement of this investigation, and what do they know about that? Have they had -- has the prime minister or his ministers or their staff -- had conversations with executives of NBN Co, a government agency I'd stress again, about the conduct of this investigation, and has the prime minister or his ministers or any of their staff sought updates from NBN Co? Because this investigation, I say again, is sponsored by or was prompted by the NBN Co asking for an investigation last December."

Dreyfus said the government must answer questions about its level of knowledge and involvement, and when it knew about the AFP investigation.

"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," Dreyfus added.

Referring to reports by The Guardian that the AFP has also named five media outlets in its search warrants -- the ABC, The Australian, the Australian Financial Review, the Sydney Morning Herald, and Delimiter -- Dreyfus also said that the AFP's investigation has become a raid on whistleblowers and their right to report news.

"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.

"As some commentators have already said this morning, it raises questions about protection of whistleblowers, because at base, what this matter is about is documents which are concerned with the mismanagement of the NBN."

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 rebuffed these accusations, saying he had no prior knowledge of the AFP investigation until Thursday evening.

"The first I heard of the AFP investigation was yesterday, when I was advised by the justice minister shortly after he'd been advised by the commissioner. But let me just make this observation: We are dealing here with a matter of law enforcement. We are dealing here with a matter of the Australian Federal Police. As you've heard from Commissioner Colvin, the AFP acts independently of government.

"The NBN Co made a referral of a matter of concern, of illegal leaking of confidential commercial information, they made that referral to the AFP, the AFP made an independent decision to investigate it, and they made an independent decision to undertake the various operational activities they did yesterday. Now, what Labor is doing is seeking to attack the integrity of the Australian Federal Police. That is a shameful thing to do.

"You can't trust Labor on national security."

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin told media earlier on Friday morning that the government was not made aware of the raids until after they had commenced, 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."

Parliamentary privilege has now been claimed on the documents seized by the AFP, which have been sealed and will be given to the Senate, Colvin said. The claim will then be "resolved by parliamentary processes, which are to come in coming weeks", Dreyfus added.

The AFP investigation has been ongoing since early December, culminating in the execution of two search warrants on Thursday night in Melbourne on the office of former Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy and the home of a communications staffer for Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare.

The raid on Conroy's office was completed by the late hours of Thursday night, whereas the search of the home of Clare's staffer was not finished until 5am AEST Friday morning, according to Dreyfus.

"These allegations were the subject of a referral from the National Broadband Network Company, received by the AFP on 9 December 2015. This investigation has been ongoing since that date," the AFP said in a statement on Friday.

"This investigation has been undertaken independent of government, and decisions regarding yesterday's activity were made by the AFP alone.

"Search warrants conducted in East Melbourne and Brunswick are part of a phased approach that the AFP has undertaken regarding this investigation. The next phase of this investigation involves the examination and analysis of material collected during these search warrants."

The raids followed a number of leaks over the past six months: In November, a leaked document revealed that Optus' HFC network is "not fully fit for purpose", with 470,000 premises in the footprint needing to be overbuilt; and in December, a leak divulged that the cost to replace or repair the legacy copper network would amount to AU$641 million.

In February, a document alleged that the rollout was seriously delayed and costing more to connect each premises; in March, a document stated that NBN had conducted trials of FttP with skinny fibre that had found FttP was no more expensive than FttN; and in April, a leaked document alleged once again that 40 FttN areas were behind schedule.

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