On Friday at a campaign event in Tasmania the Prime Minister, eventually, got around to talking about the AFP action over the leaks from NBN Co. InnovationAus.com isn’t primarily a political journal, but we do think it is instructive for everyone involved in public policy to understand what a politician’s answer can actually mean.
Let’s start with the first question:
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the AFP says that these leaks about the NBN have been under investigation since December last year. Did you or anyone in your office or anyone in your government, have knowledge this matter was under investigation?
PRIME MINISTER: Well the first I heard of the AFP investigation was yesterday, when I was advised by the Justice Minister shortly after he’d been advised by the Commissioner.
Note that the PM didn’t answer whether anyone in his government knew of the investigation, only that he personally didn’t until after he was advised by the Justice Minister. On Saturday Communications Minister Senator Fifield revealed that he had been advised by NBN Co when the complaint was made (actually it seems to have been before it was made).
When asked about whether the PM should have been told Mr Turnbull said that was a matter for the judgement of the Minister. One wonders why Minister Fifield hadn’t alerted the PM prior to the Friday press conference, or indeed why the PM hadn’t sought the information.
PRIME MINISTER: (continuing) Now what Labor is doing, is seeking to attack the integrity of the Australian Federal Police. That is a shameful thing to do. Labor should be ashamed of themselves.
The Australian Federal Police are not above the law nor unaccountable. Anyone in our society is entitled to question how the AFP performs its duty.
That includes asking why, apart from the fact that the leaking was continuing, the AFP has been more zealous in the investigation here than in any of the national security leaks. It includes asking why the AFP thought obtaining the physical documents from the offices of the ALP staff members was a good way to progress the case. It includes asking why the AFP are so cloth-eared to not realise that the issue could have rested till after the election.
JOURNALIST: Just in light on this, not directly on the investigation but in light of this, in your time in federal politics, have you or any of your staff members ever leaked a confidential government document – ever?
PRIME MINISTER: Tim, I’m not going to get into a sort of an interesting fishing expedition of yours. With great respect, no – let me be very clear about this. What we have is an AFP investigation which is being conducted independently of government and it should be allowed and it will be allowed, to be completed independently of government.
The PM didn’t answer the question but moved on to defending the AFP and attempting to attack Labor for questioning the AFP.
JOURNALIST: Just to follow Tim’s question there. Given the level of your office and given the fact that Andrew Colvin said there are a number of investigations going on at the moment; shouldn’t Australians know that the top office in the land won’t be involved in these investigations down the track? They’re voting for you at this election.
PRIME MINISTER: Can I say to you, I can only speak for my own time as Prime Minister. There has been no suggestion that I’ve ever heard of any leaks from my office. So that’s the fact. We run a very tight ship. Now having said that I know that all of you journalists are determined to find gaps in even the tightest ships but that is my commitment.
Note how the Mr Turnbull uses the framing of the question to only answer about leaks once he had become Prime Minister. So the PM has been asked whether he has ever leaked Government documents and has twice declined to answer the question.
PRIME MINISTER (continuing): So we are getting on with the job. Now if we had continued with the Labor Party’s approach, this is what the consequence would be. Australians would have waited at least six and as much as eight years longer to get the service built and it would have cost them $30 billion more.
This is one of the great repeated lies told by the PM about the NBN. These figures are lifted from the last NBN Corporate Plan, but they are not NBN Co’s assessment of what it would have cost to continue with Labor’s plan.
The numbers reflected the cost and timing if the FTTP roll-out which had already been wound down had been resurrected and recommenced. It involved years of lost time and wasted costs that have been spent on MTM.
PRIME MINISTER (continuing): It is a good, reliable utility and right across Australia, particularly in regional Australia, where the satellite is now becoming available, and of course the wireless broadband has become so successful, fixed wireless has become so successful, especially in Eric’s electorate here in Tasmania.
It is remarkable that the PM is now taking credit for the satellite program that he said when announced was unnecessary because there was additional capacity. The wireless roll-out is also a project largely untouched by the change of management.
Finally, let’s talk about NBN leaks.
Anyone would believe from the protestations of Malcolm Turnbull, Mitch Fifield and Bill Morrow that these leaks are unprecedented and damaging. They are neither.
A very quick search throws up the following paragraphs:
We’re getting into the meat of the Federal Election campaign now, and the every weakness is being seized upon by the opposing faction to make them look stupid before the electorate. So imagine how well this news will go down: new leaked documents indicate that the National Broadband Network Company will again miss its all-important roll-out targets. Again.
The Australian Financial Review has reportedly got hold of leaked documents which indicate that the National Broadband Network Company is looking at a shortfall of around 273,065 premises by the milestone date of June 2014.
Gunnedah high speed Wi-Fi internet works as leaked reports reveal NBN cost could blow out to $50b.
When asked on the weekend whether any of these leaks that occurred under the previous Labor Government had been referred to the AFP both Senator Wong and Mark Dreyfus said “Not that I can recall.” The same answer comes from me as an Adviser to Senator Conroy.
There is another question here. If NBN Co said they couldn’t identify the sources from their own investigations, and if all the material obtained by the AFP from the raids has been sealed under the claim of parliamentary privilege, what was the basis for standing down the employees?