Penny Wong

Senator Penny Wong has dared Attorney-General George Brandis to table a copy of his WhatsApp communications, after the Attorney-General insisted the instant messaging app was used for nothing other than trivial, routine discussions within the government.

Last week, Fairfax reported that the Prime Minister and his most senior cabinet ministers were using WhatsApp to conduct “confidential discussions”. Fairfax spoke to multiple security experts who raised concerns about the usage of the app for discussing classified information.

Wong’s dare to Brandis came at the conclusion of a fiery period of Senate estimates, in which Brandis accused Wong of “bullying” the public servants facing the panel, while Wong threw the accusation back at Brandis, saying he had stood by and said nothing when the Solicitor-General was subjected to “bullying” questions by government MPs on Friday.

[Brandis misled Parliament and mishandled advice, and he’s got to go]

Under questioning, Brandis wouldn’t confirm or deny the existence of a WhatsApp group filled with cabinet members, though he did say he communicated with colleagues “from time to time” on the app but “nothing of public significance was ever said”.

Wong said if that was the case, he should table a copy of his correspondence on the app, which could be exported as a text file. Brandis responded with a curt “No”. “So it’s entirely unremarkable but you don’t want to export as a text file,” Wong asked. “It is entirely unremarkable,” Brandis repeated. “So why don’t you give us a copy?” Wong asked a final time, to stony silence on the part of the Attorney-General.

Earlier, several senior members of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had faced a grilling by Wong, who wanted to know whether they had looked into the WhatsApp revelations. Allan McKinnon, a deputy security in charge of national security at the department, said in his experience the Prime Minister was well aware of his obligations with regards to communicating confidential communications, so, for that reason, he hadn’t attached too much credence to Fairfax’s reports.

Wong also asked how the department would handle FOI requests relating to WhatsApp. She was told it would be done in the same way as with text messages — the relevant person would be asked whether they had any communications relating to the request. “You may take it, Senator Wong, that an FOI request would be processed in the normal way,” Brandis said. — Myriam Robin