For months last year, gossip about George Christensen’s travels was swirling in Canberra. A number of journalists from various media outlets were trying to pin the story down, lodging freedom of information requests, sending questions to government departments and fielding letters from Christensen’s lawyers. (Some of those journalists would later claim their efforts had been met with stonewalling.)

With the Coalition holding a one-seat majority less than six months away from an election, a scandal about a high-profile government backbencher would be big news whoever it was about — being about George Christensen made it bigger still. This is the “renegade” conservative Christian Queensland LNP MP so devout that he famously has the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus tattooed on his shoulder; this is a politician who twice almost became a Catholic priest , and one widely known for fighting to save Australia from the supposed moral corruption of same-sex marriage, abortion, and the Safe Schools program. Pretty much everyone who knew what was coming thought Christensen was a goner.

While the story was building behind the scenes, Christensen was publicly very much in love. In mid-September, he’d given an exclusive “rare interview about his private life” to his hometown paper, The Daily Mercury, announcing his engagement to April Asuncion, from Quezon City in the Philippines.

Mackay’s Daily Mercury newspaper, September 13, 2018.

Christensen told Inq he had “no idea” whose idea the front page story was. Inq has confirmed it was pitched by his office.

The article, which also ran online in The Courier-Mail , reported that the pair met “at the beginning of 2017” and that “Mr Christensen has travelled to the Philippines eight times in his life”.

That number, travel records would later reveal, is at least 20 visits shy of the total. Christensen told Inq it was a mistake. The Daily Mercury’s reporter, Madura McCormack, told Inq she thinks that is possible.

Either way, this interview establishing his connection to the Philippines came before Christensen says he was aware of any media interest in his travel to the region. (He told Inq the first he knew of that — and of the Australian Federal Police’s (AFP) inquiries — was when journalists started sending him questions in mid-November 2018.)

It was Rob Harris and Anthony Galloway at the Herald Sun who, on December 20, 2018, finally got a story up.

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But the paper’s News Corp stablemates in Queensland, The Courier-Mail and the Daily Mercury, were quick to hose the story down. An article by The Courier-Mail’s political editor, Renee Viellaris, reported that Christensen had “spectacularly slammed” the “smear campaign”. It framed the story as a political beat-up being pushed by the Turnbull camp and Labor.

Christensen railed against the “fake allegations” in a “southern newspaper”. He, and The Courier-Mail, cited legal advice stating “he is not, and never was, under formal investigation for criminal activity” — even though the Herald Sun’s story had never claimed that he was. (The word “investigation” needs to be used carefully when discussing this story: the AFP has only ever described its inquiries as an “evaluation” or “matter”. It is worth noting that the AFP factor in how “politically sensitive” evaluation material is when deciding whether to proceed to a formal investigation.)

Viellaris reported that the AFP had been tasked to inquire into Christensen’s travel “earlier this year” (in fact, it was early the previous year), and had “quickly determined” there was nothing to investigate (the matter took more than 12 months to conclude). She said he had provided a “detailed account” of his philanthropy and holidays, including visits to see his fiance and her family.

In a follow-up, under the heading “George Christensen in clear as federal police reject allegations”, Viellaris cited a letter from then-AFP deputy commissioner Ramzi Jabbour which contradicted some — but not all — of the details in the Herald Sun’s story, and did not address the AFP’s concerns over Christensen’s potential exposure to extortion.

In March, after the revelations broke that Christensen had spent 294 days across 28 trips in the Philippines, Prime Minister Scott Morrison took a “ veiled swipe ” at him. Queensland LNP member Matt Canavan came to Christensen’s defence, accusing “Melbourne-based media” for “doing a job” on Christensen and calling the story “a massive beat up” and “an invasion of George’s privacy”. He claimed Christensen had “done a lot of charity work in the Philippines” through his church.

One particular angle on the travel stories seemed to help Christensen off the hook in his hometown: the suggestion that he’d “slugged taxpayers” more than $3000 for the domestic connecting flights to his international flights to the Philippines (which were personally funded). This was overreach. He had billed his flights from Canberra to capitals like Sydney or Brisbane, before continuing to Manila — but as most fair observers soon pointed out, it actually cost taxpayers less than if he’d flown all the way back home to Mackay first.

It played perfectly into the notion that “southerners” were unfairly picking on him, and helped to deflect every other sling and arrow. Christensen was so confident he had done nothing wrong that he referred himself to the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority (though was seemingly abashed enough to delete a tweet he’d sent — from the Philippines — criticising other MPs for taking advantage of travel perks).

By the end of April, the main story about him in the Queensland newspapers was about a “cringeworthy” music video he’d made for the election campaign: a parody of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere”. He’d changed the lyrics to “I’ve got us our share, man”, to showcase his local political achievements after nine years in the job.

And at the federal election a month later, Christensen not only held on to his seat, but recorded the second-biggest swing to the Coalition in Australia .

The sucker-punch never landed.

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Peter Fray

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