Turnbull 'going after whistleblowers' on NBN leaks: Shorten

The government is preventing the media from being free to report the truth about the NBN by referring the matter to the AFP, the opposition leader has said.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has argued that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) involvement in the investigation into the leaking of confidential National Broadband Network (NBN) documents is tantamount to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull going after whistleblowers and journalists to prevent them from reporting the "truth".

Just hours after Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare questioned whether Turnbull or any Coalition ministers were involved in the NBN referring the investigation to the federal police in the first place, Shorten said the media should be free to report information revealed in leaked documents.

"He is going after whistleblowers, and he's smearing his political opponents. The public has the right to know the truth, and whistleblowers deserve protection," Shorten told media at a press conference on Friday afternoon.

"Turnbull has said that somehow, Labor's questioning the integrity of the AFP. I'm questioning Malcolm Turnbull's integrity. We know what this is all about: This is about the right of the public to know and the media to publish. I believe we need to get to the truth of what's really happening in the NBN.

"I believe in an Australia where the media can publish, where journalists can do their investigations without fear or favour. That's what we're fighting for here."

Shorten added that Turnbull himself has in the past discussed the importance of whistleblowers, and provided a quote from August 4, 2009:

"Whistleblowers and leaks are part of the Canberra culture. And many would say they're a very important part. And without whistleblowers being prepared to reveal what they perceive as wrongdoings on the part of governments, then a lot of wrongdoing would go unrevealed," Shorten quoted Turnbull as saying.

The topic of whistleblowers was broached with The Guardian reporting the AFP as having named five media outlets in additional search warrants: The ABC, The Australian, the Australian Financial Review, the Sydney Morning Herald, and Delimiter, which all broke news stories based on leaked NBN documents.

Adding to Dreyfus' and Clare's queries earlier on Friday over whether the raids had been influenced by the Coalition in an effort to cover up its failed NBN policy, Shorten said NBN is itself a part of the government.

"There are two shareholder ministers and the government appoints people on the board. It is inconceivable that Malcolm Turnbull -- who was the government minister for the NBN Co -- it is inconceivable that you've got one of the largest government businesses ... acting like sort of a rogue," he argued.

"The AFP is only following something which the NBN Co has commissioned, and you've got to ask yourselves: Why is it a state secret that Prime Minister Turnbull and his various government agencies will go to such lengths to keep away from people this information?

"You keep saying the government is anything different to NBN Co. It's not."

Turnbull rebuffed such accusations, saying he had no knowledge of the AFP investigation until Thursday.

"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," Turnbull said.

Shorten said he missed a call from AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin at 4.02pm AEST on Thursday, called back at 4.55pm AEST, and had a "one-minute conversation" about the AFP's intentions to raid Conroy's offices.

"That was the extent of the conversation. And I will not ever interfere with a police investigation," Shorten said.

When asked whether he or any members of his staff have leaked confidential documents to the media, Shorten said it was "not relevant to this issue", although he added "certainly not that I recall".

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 one of Clare's communications staffers.

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.

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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