Words by: Jonathon Davidson
Let’s start at the beginning – who is involved?
The main players involved in this situation are:
1) The Australian Federal Police,
2) The Labor Party,
3) Stephen Conroy – Former Minister for Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy under the Gillard Government, Deputy Leader of the Opposition
4) Jason Clare – Shadow Minister for Communications,
5) Anthony Byrne – Adviser to Jason Clare, Deputy Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security,
6) National Broadband Network Corporation,
7) Malcolm Turnbull,
8) A number of media organisations.
And what is it about?
The raid, according to official reports, is the culmination of a six month investigation led by the AFP in response to complaints lodged by NBN Co. In 2015, a number of documents about the NBN were released to the media. They largely revealed the failures of the NBN rollout, highlighting that Telstra had essentially bought copper from itself – an illegal practice – and that $800 million of Optus cable was being entirely replaced due to its poor condition (in other words, 800 million dollars that taxpayers will never see again).
Including the “hidden costs” of a nation wide infrastructural failure, billions of dollars were lost.
Who are NBN Co?
This is the beginning of what makes this whole thing interesting. NBN is a Commonwealth Government Business Enterprise, and its two shareholders are Liberal Party ministers – Minister for Communications, Mitch Fifield, and Minister for Finance, Mathias Cormann. Both the minister for communications and the minister for finance have invested stakes in the NBN rollout, and both were scrutinised when the NBN leaks originally went live. Additionally, Malcolm Turnbull has a lot invested in the NBN, being the king of innovation and all, as well as Communications Minister himself, who was responsible for a lot of media hype surrounding the project.
Right. So, what went down?
At around 8pm EST last night, it was revealed in a broadcast sitting of Parliament that the Australian Federal Police were planning on raiding the Labor party campaign headquarters in Melbourne, Victoria. The ABC broke the news first, followed by state outlets. Initial reports were underfed with information and based on what scattered reports were available. However, as the night went on, more and more information started coming in. It’s now confirmed that between 11pm and midnight EST, plain-clothes Federal Police officers began raids on the office of Stephen Conroy within the Labor headquarters, and one private property, with which two high profile Labor members are involved – Jason Clare and Anthony Byrne. Anthony Byrne, adviser to Jason Clare, is believed to “co-own” the residential property which was raided. The AFP raids went for five hours. It has been reported that media organisations who published stories based on the leaks are also to be raided.
Okay, so wait – define “raid.” What are we actually talking about?
The AFP, operating on powers granted by a search warrant, sent teams of plain clothes officers to two Melbourne addresses in the late evening. Once they arrived, the police began a search for documents related to the leak in 2015.
Did they find anything?
Yes. Multiple reports have confirmed that a number of documents were seized. However, these have been called under Parliamentary Privilege, meaning that these documents are the exclusive property of Parliament, and that not even the police can investigate them. It is unclear who authorized this, through which channels, and who relayed this information to the media.
I don’t see the problem. The AFP are acting within the law.
Yes, yes they are. It was made very clear by every single Liberal representative who spoke to the media last night that the AFP are an independent organisation, or act independently, or make independent decisions. It is extremely likely that Liberal staffers received orders to refer to the AFP as an independent organisation, based on the uniform inclusion of this remark by all Liberal members contacted by the press in the last 20 or so hours – the AFP’s statement this morning also clarified that they were, in fact, an independent organisation.
So why is everyone up in arms about this?
Well, there are quite a few loose ends. Those are the timing of the raids, the benefit of this investigation to the Liberal party, the spread of information in the hours before the raids, and the objectivity of the AFP.
So why is the timing an issue?
What has most people puzzled is the fact that the initial leaks are six to seven months old, and the initial referral to the AFP by NBN Co occurred six months ago. Almost 200 days later, the AFP move on Labor headquarters and property two weeks into an election.
I can see how it’s suss, but it’s not like elections take preference over justice. The AFP would raid them regardless of timing, it’s just when they got the warrant.
Correct. This is likely the case, and the NBN Co have been communicating with the AFP for a while now supposedly working on this case. So, yes, it’s entirely possible that this is just a case of bad timing, and you’re right to be skeptical of tin foil hattery.
But then, on the other hand, this is really good for Liberal, in a way.
Because now the NBN can’t become part of the pre-election discussions. If the NBN is under investigation, all information can be (and legally must be) suppressed so media coverage cannot influence the outcome of the investigation. This also works really well for Malcolm Turnbull. As one of the original keen salesman, the complete and utter failure of the NBN on both a financial and infrastructural level is an immense wound for his personal brand. Liberal depend on the social perception that Labor can’t handle the economy. Time and time again, we hear about the debt Labor left us in – however, the billions of dollars of debt that the NBN left us threaten to unravel that entire argument. This comes at a time when Australia’s immigration practices are under scrutiny from even the most conservative circles, and the issues of multinational tax avoidance and corporate governance is lingering at the forefront of the public awareness. It is extremely helpful that one of Liberal’s biggest broken promises is now under wraps.
So, wait – why is this leak worthy of a raid, but the leak of the white papers Defence budget went totally unpunished?
Now you’re starting to understand why this interesting, beyond the historical note of politicians being raided over leaks, which is unsurprising given the Abbott-Turnbull Coalition’s attitudes towards Freedom of Information.
So what about the spread of information before the raids?
At the moment, it looks like there could have been a leak to the media from within the AFP. Spokespeople for the organisation have come out and said this isn’t the case, but Jason Clare has declared that he was completely unaware of the raid on his adviser’s home, present at a media dinner event when the raids occurred. Fifield and Cormann have both declared that they were entirely unaware of the raids, as has Malcolm Turnbull. The fact that investigations are ongoing, and raids are likely to be carried out on media outlets, highlights the absence of information at the forefront of reports right now. Clearly, something is going on behind closed doors.
Shouldn’t taxpayers have the right to know about hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars lost in a failed broadband rollout?
Now you’re really starting to get why this is interesting.