Fifield says NBN management decided to refer leaks to AFP

Turnbull not aware of investigation, communications minister claims

Communications minister Senator Mitch Fifield

Communications minister Senator Mitch Fifield

Communications minister Senator Mitch Fifield says that he did not request that NBN refer to the Australian Federal Police a series of embarrassing leaks of internal documents.

Those leaks led to AFP raids on a Labor Senator’s office and the homes of Labor staffers.

AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin denied any influence from the government in the decision to stage the raids during the federal election campaign.

Colvin said on Friday that no-one in the government was aware of the leak investigation before the raids took place yesterday. The timing of the raids was determined by the investigation, Colvin said.

However, in a statement Fifield revealed that he had been made aware of the investigation by NBN. “Last year there were leaks of commercially sensitive information from NBN,” Fifield said.

“The senior management of NBN initiated an internal review, which identified matters of concern. The NBN senior management subsequently referred these matters to the AFP.

“I was advised by NBN that the matter had been referred to the AFP. The referral to the AFP was made by the NBN senior management. I did not instruct nor request them to do so.”

Fifield said that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was not made aware of the investigation.

“I have had no interaction with the AFP during their investigation,” the communications minister said.

“Nor did I have any knowledge of, nor involvement in, matters that occurred this week, as was confirmed by the AFP Commissioner yesterday.”

In a doorstop interview on Saturday, Labor leader Bill Shorten said it was “inconceivable” that Turnbull was not aware of the investigation.

“It is inconceivable – it is totally implausible – that Senator Fifield ... was not aware of the police investigation into NBN and he has confirmed that,” Shorten said.

“It is even more inconceivable that he would not have communicated this fact to Mr Turnbull or any member of his staff. Otherwise we would be led to believe that there could be major police investigations triggered by government business enterprises responsible to the minister... and that they would not tell the prime minister or his staff.

“It is either gross incompetence or indeed it far worse, and we are not being told the truth.”

“The government is trying to pretend, now it has all hit the fan, that somehow NBN company is unrelated to the government,” Shorten told journalists.

“Whenever there was a good story about NBN Co, from the parliament to the streets of Australia you would see a traffic jam of Coalition ministers in white cars fronting up for the photo opportunity.

“But now all of a sudden the truth is coming out that the project is bloated, it is slower, the promises have not been kept. They are trying to pretend they would not have an idea what is going on at NBN Co.”

Labor has invoked parliamentary privilege in relation to the documents seized by the AFP. As a result, the documents will be sealed until parliament can address the question of privilege.

It has also emerged that an NBN staff member, who was present at the raids to identify relevant material, photographed and forwarded to other NBN employees images of documents. Those documents potentially included Labor's yet-to-be-released broadband policy. The images have allegedly been deleted.

Two NBN staff members have reportedly been stood down over the leaked documents.

The leaked documents were used by Labor to attack the state of the NBN rollout.

The documents, which were circulated to press outlets, revealed higher than expected costs to remediate copper and challenges in sourcing power to power the nodes in NBN’s FTTN rollout.

In addition, they revealed that the infrastructure of the Optus hybrid-fibre coaxial network, which NBN is taking ownership of under a deal struck with the telco, was in poorer than expected condition.

The AFP raids have been described the MEAA, the union which represents journalists, as an attack on press freedom.

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

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