Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has admitted he knew about NBN referring politically damaging leaks to the AFP for investigation, but he claims he didn’t tell any of his fellow ministers or the Prime Minister about it.
Close to two days after the raids, in a statement released on Saturday morning, Fifield said he “was advised by NBN” that the matter was referred to the federal police by NBN senior management in December last year but says he did not instruct or request the referral to be made.
Fifield claims that despite the politically damaging nature of the series of leaks from December to as recently as March this year embarrassing the government on the National Broadband Network roll-out, he didn’t inform other ministers or Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about the investigation. He said in the statement:
“As an AFP investigation was underway, 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.”
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This comes in stark contrast to comments from AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin on Friday, that Fifield’s office would not have been aware of the investigation from December last year.
Reporter: You mentioned the politicians contacted yesterday. Just to be clear, the relevant portfolio minister would be Senator Fifield. Would his office been aware of any point since December this investigation was underway and that raids could have been–
Crikey understands that NBN boss Bill Morrow had initial discussions with Fifield about potentially referring the matter to the AFP when the leaks first started, and then once an official referral was made.
Turnbull said Friday that he first became aware of the investigation when he was informed that the raids were taking place on Thursday night.
Labor campaign spokesperson Penny Wong told journalists in Melbourne on Saturday that it was inconceivable that Fifield would not have told his ministerial colleagues.
“It’s time the government fessed up to everything that ministers and their offices knew about this investigation because it is clear from the statement from Mitch Fifield that there is more to be said.”
On Saturday Turnbull dodged questions on whether he or someone in his office had been in contact with NBN about the leaks, instead shifting the question to be about Labor’s position on national security. Wong said the leaks were damaging to Turnbull, as the former communications minister, and it was inconceivable Fifield wouldn’t let someone in the Prime Minister’s office know.
“[Turnbull needs] to stop dodging legitimate questions on this because it is quite clear that [his] minister knew of the AFP investigation into damaging documents, documents that showed the truth of Malcolm Turnbull’s mismanagement of the NBN. It just fails the pub test that no one in his office was told.”
The office of former communications minister Stephen Conroy and the home of opposition communications spokesman Jason Clare’s staffer Andy Byrne were raided by the Australian Federal Police on Thursday night seeking documents, email and phone records, and other information to help assist the AFP to determine the source of the leaks to the Australian Labor Party over the past few months.
An NBN staffer was on site during the raids and was made a constable assisting the AFP. Crikey understands he took 32 photos on his phone of the documents seized by the AFP and sent them back to NBN to confirm they were NBN documents.
After the raids, the Labor Party claimed the documents to be under parliamentary privilege as they were part of Conroy’s work of the Senate Select Committee for the National Broadband Network. This claim will not be tested until Parliament resumes, and until then the files remain locked down.
Lawyers for the Labor Party then wrote to the AFP, concerned that the photos had been taken by the NBN employee and sent to NBN, and could be in breach of parliamentary privilege. According to the letter, seen by Crikey, the ALP sought to have the photos deleted from the NBN employee’s phone.
Crikey has been told that the AFP were present when the staffer deleted the photos and were then present in NBN’s offices when the copies sent to NBN were deleted. The letter references that the photos were not backed up in iCloud, Apple’s cloud storage service.
It is understood two staff at NBN have been stood down while an investigation into the leaks is ongoing.
Wong called on the government to come clean and tell the public who the photos were sent to and whether any copies of the photos still exist. There is concern that photos might have been taken of Labor’s as-yet-unannounced NBN policy. Wong said that NBN was not an impartial organisation, and needed to disclose what it had.