news The Australian Federal Police has alleged there are reasonable grounds to suspect the Opposition broke the Official Secrets provisions of the Crimes Act, with a penalty of up to two years’ jail, for merely receiving internal documents belonging to the NBN company.
Late on Thursday night AFP officers raided the Melbourne office of former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, and the house of at least one Labor staffer working for Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare, in an apparent attempt to ascertain the identity of whistleblowers who have leaked a series of key documents from within the NBN company.
On Saturday, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield confirmed he had known about the AFP investigation since it was kicked off in December last year, although he did not tell Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about the investigation.
The segment added little new information to the public’s knowledge of events surrounding the AFP raids.
However the program did publish a full copy of the search warrant issued by the AFP in the conduct of the raids. This is significant because this document had previously been referred to — but not published online by any other media outlet. You can view the document online here in PDF format.
The document reveals that the AFP believes it has reasonable ground to suspect that the whistleblowers who leaked the documents from within the NBN company breached subsection 70(1) of the Crimes Act 1914.
This section of the Crimes Act prohibits any Commonwealth Officer from publishing or communicating documents which came into their possession by virtue of their position. It comes with a penalty of imprisonment for two years.
However, the AFP’s search warrant also noted that the AFP believed it had reasonable ground to suspect that a person or persons believed to be Australian Labor Party staffers had also breached the Crimes Act, merely by receiving the documents concerned.
The section of the Crimes Act quoted in the search warrant is Section 79(6), which deals with Official Secrets and also carries with it a penalty of two years’ imprisonment.
If the AFP successfully prosecutes the offences listed in the search warrant, this implies that one or more Labor staff members could see jail time merely for receiving leaked documents relating to the NBN company.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has argued that the work involved in receiving the leaked NBN documents was a part of the role of Labor Senator Stephen Conroy (and Labor staffers), given that Conroy sat on the Senate Select Committee into the NBN, which was tasked with investigating the NBN rollout.
In addition, it is generally considered part of the performance of any Senator’s duties to deal with whistleblowers, in the role of holding the Government of the day to account — especially given the Senate’s role reviewing legislation and government expenditure.
On last night’s program, Media Watch host Paul Barry stated that media outlets had been complaining about the relevant sections of the Crimes Act for years. The show stated:
“In 2007, the Australian media, including the ABC, Fairfax and News Corp, formed a coalition called Australia’s Right to Know, which demanded our secrecy laws be changed so that: “… criminal penalties should only apply to unauthorised disclosures of information … where there is an overwhelming public interest in preventing disclosure, and the consequences of disclosure affect national security or public safety …”.”
The Australian Law Reform Commission had also called in 2009 for the laws to be changed, Media Watch noted.
The release of the warrant also confirmed that Delimiter was cited in its pages. The context in which Delimiter was cited was that the AFP wanted to be able to seize any documents from Labor which related to Delimiter, as well as other media outlets such as The Australian, The Australian Financial Review, The Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC.
The AFP’s investigation appears to be ongoing, although two NBN company staff have so far been stood down over the leaks.
Opinion/analysis to follow