Let’s wind the clock back to 2014. George Christensen was six months into his second term as the federal member for Dawson, a seat he held with a margin of 5%. Dawson is a north Queensland electorate that spans 14,630 square kilometres stretching from Mackay to the southern side of Townsville and west to the Burdekin River. That’s a lot of distance to cover, even before factoring in the travel to Canberra (a five-hour trip on two flights each way) for parliamentary sitting weeks.

Many regional MPs cite that kind of time on the road as one of the most gruelling aspects of their job. But long-distance travel wasn’t just part of George Christensen’s job as a politician — he was also covering many more thousands of kilometres on personal trips to south-east Asia.

Travel records obtained and reported on by the Herald Sun in March 2019 show that Christensen flew to Manila on April 26, 2014, and left 14 days later. He went again on June 30 for six days. And again on September 6 for 14 days. And from November 2-10. And then for 28 days from December 24 to January 20, 2015.

In 2015, Christensen made another seven trips to the Philippines — in February, March/April and June/July. He went all that way for just three days from July 24-26. Then five days in August, another five days in October, and for 16 days from December 26 to January 10, 2016. 

He was back six days later from January 16-24, 2016. And for another week in July, leaving while the federal election result was still in doubt and his party faced possible minority government. By the time he returned, the Coalition was in power with a one-seat majority and Christensen had suffered a 4.2% swing against him. But it didn’t slow his travels down: he flew to the Philippines for nine days in August, and again from September 3-6, September 29 to October 5 and December 6 to January 4, 2017. 

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Some time in “early 2017”, the AFP says, it started paying attention to Christensen’s prodigious travel habits. What prompted that initial attention remains unclear. The Herald Sun later reported that, in mid-November, a Labor MP made a referral to the AFP after being privately given information by an official in the Australian embassy in Manila. But Christensen told Inq the AFP told him “point blank” the only thing that prompted its assessment was that one referral, and that he was “advised by the AFP verbally that the referral happened back in April 2017”. 

Meanwhile, Christensen kept racking up those air miles. He made another seven trips in 2017, one of them an official visit when he was part of a parliamentary delegation to the Philippines in September. The others were all personal trips, including one where he had weight loss surgery in Malaysia.

In early September, the AFP briefed Martin Parkinson, Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Shortly after that, PM Malcolm Turnbull was briefed — the first of six briefings he received on the Christensen travel matter. Some of those briefings were initiated by the AFP, others occurred because Turnbull “asked to be kept informed”, according to then-AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin. In December, the AFP briefed Nationals leader/deputy PM Barnaby Joyce.

By “late 2017”, according to a report by the Herald Sun, Turnbull and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton were so concerned about Christensen’s frequent travel that they were planning to dump him as a candidate. 

By January 2018, George was back in the Philippines again for 16 days.

Angeles City RSL sub-branch newsletter, January 2018. Christensen attended the branch for a few hours one morning while in the Philippines.

By February, word was getting out. The AFP said it was “concerned that the information we were evaluating was becoming known”, and believed the deputy prime minister should know about it. At Turnbull’s request, Michael McCormack — who by then had replaced Barnaby Joyce as Nationals leader — was also briefed. And in March, the AFP briefed Dutton.

Then, in April, Christensen travelled to the Philippines for a week.

On May 24, 2018, the AFP provided Christensen with a “security briefing” to advise him of the risks associated with his travel. He told Inq he did not know, even after this briefing, that the AFP had been looking into his travel. He says he was not warned during this briefing that he was vulnerable to blackmail or extortion, and was not told about the Labor MP’s referral. 

Christensen told us the AFP spoke about “security relating to using or taking my mobile phones into areas of high risk of compromised technology, particularly by well, allegedly by Chinese espionage. And that included the Philippines”.

When asked what he thought had triggered the briefing, he said “because I was travelling”.

“They said ‘we know you’re doing international travel so, to let you know, mobile phone use: be secure’. They’re the AFP, I have no idea. Obviously I have an idea now.”

A week later, Christensen made his last known trip to the Philippines, returning on June 9. He told Inq he has not been back since. 

Two weeks later, on June 25, 2018, the AFP wrote to Dutton. The Hun reported this letter advised that the AFP was closing the case but Christensen remained an ongoing risk for compromise by foreign interests. Neither Dutton nor the AFP have ever commented on the nature of that letter. (In a further twist, the AFP incorrectly told a Senate estimates hearing it hadn’t written to Dutton, and later had to provide a “Correction to Hansard” acknowledging it had.)

By then, three intriguing events had occurred:

  • George Christensen had made 28 visits to the Philippines in just over four years, for a total of 294 days. 
  • The AFP had conducted an evaluation of the matter from a criminal perspective, as confirmed to Senate Estimates.
  • The AFP had conducted inquiries into Christensen and his travels for more than a year, concluding it had found “no evidence of wrongdoing and no evidence of criminal behaviour”, but apparently, were concerned he remained a security risk.

And then the media got wind.

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Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey