Talking to George Christensen about his travel saga was like trying to cross a semantic minefield.
When I queried his characterisation of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) inquiries into his frequent trips to Southeast Asia as being “quickly” concluded, given former AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin said “this matter went for the better part of over 12 months”, Christensen pulled me up, saying: “the matter went for over 12 months. How long did the evaluation go for?”
So let’s define a few key pieces of jargon. An evaluation is a specific type of AFP procedure. A referral triggers an evaluation which, depending on a number of factors — including how “politically sensitive” the material is — may or may not proceed to an official investigation.
Christensen is right to say he was never under formal investigation by the AFP. But it’s also true that actions the AFP would have taken as part of its “evaluation” could be fairly described, in layman’s terms, as an “investigation”. (Even Christensen slips up on the words we are supposed to use at times, at one point during our call saying “the investigation began after that referral”. Luckily, you can’t sue yourself for defamation.)
The word matter, however, is a broader term, frequently used by the feds to encompass inquiries that aren’t made in response to a referral.
And even by Christensen’s own timeline, “quickly” is a curious choice of words. He told Inq he was told “point blank” by then-AFP deputy commissioner Ramzi Jabbour, that “the only thing that prompted their assessment was the referral”, and said the AFP told him that referral was made in April 2017.
In that case it took five months for the AFP to decide it should brief the Prime Minister’s Office, which it did in September. It was still briefing senior government members in December, and then again in February and March of 2018. And Christensen told Inq that “a letter I have seen from the AFP” states that the matter was concluded at the time of his security briefing, which happened in May 2018.
So. It was a 13-month-long non-investigation investigation.
Christensen has also described the Herald Sun’s stories about him as “fake news” based on “gossip from Labor and a very senior Liberal MP” that was “proven false by none other than the AFP”.
But when pressed, he can only point to two details that he disputes.
Firstly, that the AFP “launched inquiries after a government financial intelligence agency noticed the MP was sending money to multiple accounts in the region”. Neither he — nor the AFP — has denied that financial transactions formed part of the AFP’s inquiries. The Courier-Mail reported that Christensen “confirmed” he “sent money to his fiancee, who works in her family’s convenience store, every month”.
Secondly, that the AFP’s inquiries were “inhibited because investigators could not access encrypted messages the MP sent online”. Christensen told Inq that Jabbour told him those claims were “nonsense”.
So, what about the AFP’s reported concerns that he was vulnerable to extortion or blackmail by foreign interests?
Christensen told me there were “no concerns about extortion”.
“No. I’ve never been extorted, I’ve never been threatened with extortion. If I ever was, for whatever reason, it would be just stuff that’s made up, the first people I’d go to are the Federal Police, it’s just a nonsense thing. I’m not at risk of any extortion.”
(He might not think so, but it’s not really his call.)
Christensen has insisted that the first he knew of the AFP’s interest in his travels was in mid-November 2018, when journalists starting sending him questions. Surely the “security briefing” the AFP gave him in May 2018 alerted him to their attention? Christensen suggests it was simply a routine courtesy.
“That was just about travel-related issues, such as taking your mobile phone overseas. I certainly wasn’t aware of anything to do with any complaint of a criminal nature, anything like that whatsoever.”
Did they advise him that he might be vulnerable to blackmail or extortion?
“Nope. We were talking 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 … because nobody had advised me ‘don’t take your government-issued mobile phone into those areas’.”
What triggered the briefing?
“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.”
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